The way the title of the movie HU$TLE is written in large, white, italicized letters except for the red dollar sign expresses its theme and perspective on Rose. Peter Edward Rose, the famous "Charlie Hustle" noted for going all out on every play, became a hustler in the sense of a degenerate gambler, huckster, and con man when he managed the Cincinnati Reds after his playing career ended. (1) The movie, which begins with the note that it may not be suitable for children under fourteen, is based on the 1989 Dowd report, which was ordered by Bart Giamatti, Commissioner of Baseball, to document the charges against Rose. Inevitably, certain aspects have been fictionalized in the dramatization of events re-created to convey the sense of Rose's shady activities at this time. (2)
Tom Sizemore has a moppet haircut something like Rose's during this period, but it makes him look like a big, playful puppy dog rather than the "hard dude" Rob Dibble said Rose was when he pitched for him. The director, Peter Bogdanavich, who considers Rose's tremendous fall from grace "an American tragedy," felt that the script made Pete look so bad that he tried to temper the negative effect with closeups of Sizemore. This "humanizing touch" produced both a softening of his appearance and a falsification of Rose's essential character. Sizemore's Pete Rose is presented as a good-time Charlie Hustle who keeps womanizing and running his scams on an assortment of supposed friends and sleazy hangers-on to support his gambling habit without any sense of consequences. His job as a Major League manager seems an interruption to his gambling activities; Rose is mad about money and willing to turn every aspect of his career and fame into moneymaking propositions.
Nothing is sacred to Rose; many times he sells the supposed bat he broke Cobb's hit record with, and he uses his celebrityhood to keep his associates enthralled so that they will continue to lend him money to support his gambling. He loses large sums of money, but he doesn't expect to pay because he's Pete Rose and it's only "monopoly money," as he says to his worried wife. When his cronies demand the money he has inveigled from them, he gives them autographed baseballs and a pep talk about how much they should appreciate being allowed to be on the same "team" with the baseball legend.
Rose once described himself, in his infamous 1979 Playboy interview, as playing "like a roughneck ... hard and tough." (3) Sizemore conveys little of this competitive bravado in his hunched body language and quick, sidelong, ferretlike looks, which are intended to curry favor and at the same time to size up the situation. The only vestige of Rose's compulsive aggressiveness appears in his burning desire for money and his exploitation of others. This portrayal depicts Rose as an aging sports hero who uses the dangerous practice of indiscriminate betting to compensate for the loss of his skills and the excitement of playing the game.
Bogdanavich makes good use of the contrast between Rose's golden past and the frenetic con games of his leaden present. The movie begins with scenes showing Rose breaking Cobb's record of 4,192 hits; as he stands there accepting the cheers of the fans, the glorious scene fades to the gym where Pete meets with his gambling cronies. When Rose meets with Reds owner Marge Schott to discuss the prohibited presence of his associates in the dressing room, he looks longingly at the Big Red Machine's championship trophy in a glass case. Also, as his sleazy flunky Gio shoots steroids and snorts dope in Rose's house, we see behind him a huge, now-ironic cardboard figure of Pete in his prime. On another occasion Paul Janszen, Rose's primary dupe, who later provides evidence against him, looks sadly at the aging, overweight, and overextended great as he sleeps on the couch while plays from his stellar career are shown on TV.
The game that Rose now plays with his team of flunkies provides a perverted image of the game in which he once excelled. Pete goes to the gym in a white Rolls Royce, the car that he rode in to the ballpark on the night he broke Cobb's record, but when he wins a big bet, he gives the famous car as a reward for loyalty to one of his retinue, to whom he owes money. Appropriately, the car turns out to be a junker. When Rose wins everyone is happy and united in celebrating the victory, and Rose triumphantly declares, "As long as I score." Paulie serves as the intermediary in the gambling system Rose sets up to avoid detection. He sits in the stands and flashes the various odds via signals to Pete on the bench, who then relays to Janszen the amount he wants to bet. Pete bets on the Reds, not against them, so he feels that it's all right. He misuses his bullpen to win a game he bet on, and Tommie Helms, his former teammate and loyal coach, is worried about Pete, who allays Tommie's fears with his "good guy" act. Then Helms sees the gambling signals being passed between Pete and Paulie, and he realizes the extent to which Rose is controlled by his habit.
The film's concentration on Rose's unending money deals, which are punctuated by frequent exchanges of cold, hard cash, creates a queasy feeling in the audience about the pathological nature of Rose's hustling. When Rose hustled around the bases, he conveyed the sense of a hardnosed, aggressive athlete who was absolutely determined to use every ounce of his energy and modest skills to win. This spirit was exemplified in the 1970 All-Star Game when, in the twelfth inning, Rose crashed into catcher Ray Fosse at home and effectively ended Fosse's career. Some people felt that since it was only an exhibition game, Rose should have avoided the bone-crushing collision, but he was defiant, saying that he always played to win.
In the movie Rose displays a similar, albeit debased, attitude in his gambling deals; he hustles everyone in order to win at any cost to others. As Dibble has maintained, the same competitive spirit that made Rose such a great athlete also fueled his gambling mania and his subsequent combative reaction to the Dowd report. What emerges then as Rose's most salient characteristic as portrayed in this movie is his all-consuming passion to succeed as an expression of himself as a winner and to sacrifice others to sustain his hustling. If this movie is to any extent an accurate depiction of Rose's personality, then it is indeed a damning portrait because it demonstrates, as Thomas Boswell charged, that Rose was the greediest player he ever saw. Rose as a heroic athlete and Rose as an antiheroic liar and illegal gambler are opposite sides of the same coin.
After the Dowd report is published, Pete is banished for betting on baseball, although he repeatedly and emphatically denies this charge. In the final scene the fallen hero once again takes the long walk down the tunnel leading to the ball field and emerges onto the field hearing the distant cheers accompanying scenes of his past diamond feats. In a postscript we are informed that he was later sent to jail for tax evasion, and we see the real Rose finally admitting to betting on baseball and the Reds. Then the credits roll to the tune of a subdued "Take Me Out to the Ballgame;" in this context "3 strikes and you're out" takes on new meaning.
1. Rose received the nickname "Charlie Hustle" in 1963 spring training from Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford, who gave it to him when he ran to first on a walk. Rose turned this dig into a positive attribute through his headlong style of playing, which he attributed to his father's advice about always playing hard.
2. In conjunction with the showing of Hu$tle, ESPN hosted a number of discussions on Rose's career and his ongoing struggle to be elected to the Hall of Fame. In this review I draw on statements made on these programs by Joe Morgan, Peter Bogdanavich, Ron Dibble, and John Dowd. Dibble pointed out that the film's portrayal of Paul Janszen as an innocent dupe of Pete's scams was not accurate. The real Janszen was an established tough guy immersed in sleazy activities. Dibble also disagreed that Rose mismanaged his bullpen to further his bets. Dowd dismissed Rose's accusation in the movie that Giamatti violated their agreement that Rose would be banned but that there would be no public revelation of his gambling on baseball. Dowd maintained that no such agreement existed and blamed Rose's lawyers for advising him to deny all charges.
3. "Interview with Pete Rose," Playboy, April 1979, p. 80.
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|Title Annotation:||STAGE & SCREEN|
|Article Type:||Movie Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2005|
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