By People Staff
Updated October 27, 1986 12:00 PM

Paul Newman makes everything he’s learned in three decades of screen acting pay off in this forceful follow-up to his 1961 role as pool shark Fast Eddie Felson in The Hustler. But don’t expect one of those ravaged, old pro performances. At 61, Newman hasn’t lost his looks; he’s improved upon them. And his acting isn’t lazy; it’s eager, feral. He’s in full maturity, and he’s never been better. An Oscar after six nominations and no win would stick it smartly to the Academy for sending him prematurely out to pasture last year with one of those honorary gold watch awards. To the film’s credit, Newman is not the whole show. Tom (Top Gun) Cruise, 24, is remarkably good as Newman’s protege turned nemesis; the teen dream is a real actor. For Newman’s Fast Eddie, the sight of this naive, naturally talented kid at his game is “like watching home movies.” Eddie, too, shot pool at first for the pure pleasure of playing. Learning to win or “dump” the game for money came later. Disillusion forced him to hang up his cue stick 25 years ago. Now a glib liquor salesman in Chicago, he stakes Cruise to a big bucks nine-ball tournament in Atlantic City, only to wind up taking on the kid himself. The pungent debut screenplay by novelist Richard (The Wanderers) Price hits a provocative high in showing how Newman wins back his innocence and passion for the game by corrupting Cruise. Director Martin (Raging Bull) Scorsese is peerless at mining the streaks of courage and excellence that might redeem such low-life sleaze. And Scorsese again proves himself a master with actors. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio (Al Pacino’s sister in Scarface) deserves awards too as Cruise’s gold-digging girlfriend. “You’re a hard broad,” Newman tells her with undisguised admiration; she’s also vividly smart, sexy and a future star. Helen (Desert Hearts) Shaver shines as Newman’s barkeep lady; their turning a discussion about omelets into a seduction is an erotic howl. Okay, you can carp. The later pool scenes lose their snap, and the ending seems more appropriate to Rocky than a no-bull drama. But the invigorating match of Newman and Cruise going at each other with full force makes The Color of Money one of the movie year’s best bets. (R)