Review of Season Premiere: HBO’s “Luck” Starring Dustin Hoffman

December 12th, 2011 | by Frank | No Comments »

HBO’s Luck: Season Premiere


Director: Michael Mann
Writer/Producer: David Milch
Cast: Dustin Hoffman, Nick Nolte, Dennis Farina, Richard Kind, Jill Hennessy and Jason Gedrick.

 In an era where mysticism and overblown supernatural storylines have spread like a bad rash across the dramatic landscape in Hollywood, is there room on TV for a good old fashioned story about something as simple and compelling as HBO’s new TV series “Luck”?

I, for one, am betting on HBO’s “Luck” to become a big winner this season. Dustin Hoffman and the rest of this powerful cast will move the Luck story in smaller ways that do not rely on stakes driven through the heart, necks chewed to smithereens, or other crude manifestations of supernatural force.

The power of this series lies in the small touch of fate known as luck. Luck that is basic and real.

A gambler wants to win. In the world of professional gambling, you need skill—but that is not enough. You need Luck. And no matter how much you might need it, no matter what kind of hole you are in, luck plays no favorites. This is where the tension and beauty lies–if it was easy to win at the track or the casino, there wouldn’t be so many of us losers (including me) walking around in a daze after two hours of unsuccessfully trying to beat the odds.

But even when we lose, being on the winning side is a powerful lure. As Paul Newman said in The Color of Money, “Money won is twice as sweet as money earned.”

Click here to see a list of the best gambling books and films ever:

Episode 1 of HBO’s Luck

In episode 1, the series introduces Dustin Hoffman as he transitions back into life at the track after a three-year prison term.

Watching Hoffman in these early scenes, you are reminded of the journeys he has taken in similar acting roles–as an ex-con in Straight Time, as Tom Cruise’s brother in Rain Man, as the prototypical street hustler in Midnight Cowboy.

Ratso Rizzo: I’m walking here! I’m walking here!

This time, Ace Bernstein (Hoffman) feels agitated because as he re-enters the circle he previously inhabited, some of his former associates suspect him, some think less of him, perhaps mock him.

“I don’t trust anyone,” Bernstein says at the end of the show. “Not even myself.” The feeling we get is like the Dylan song, “You know something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?”

Everyone in Luck has a score to settle. There is the trio of pick six bettors trying to hit a big payoff. There is a rookie jockey trying to earn his way onto better mounts. There is a trainer named Escalante who mysteriously sets up a longshot to win when it suits his purposes.

There is Nick Nolte, who plays Mr. Walton, a trainer trying to recapture the magic of training a top quality horse.

And there are the power brokers, people like Bernstein, those who are rich and powerful, but still have their own scores to settle–some involving Bernstein.

In some ways, the set up for Luck reminds me of the classic western One-Eyed Jacks, wherein Marlon Brando and Karl Malden met up again after Brando took the rap for a hold-up and Malden went on to become a “no nonsense sheriff.” The movie revolved around the breach between thieves and the eventual settling of the score between Brando and Malden.

Michael Mann and Luck

In a recent interview, first episode director Michael Mann says the purpose of the show is “not to observe the racing, but place the audience within the experience.” He says David Milch’s script is not just about “ horse racing, but of how luck, when combined with skill, can have the power to change our lives.”

As Milch says, “The race track is a place of incomparable beauty, but it’s a rough racket. As a setting for storytelling, you couldn’t ask for anything more.”

Milch, who is a real life thoroughbred owner, has described LUCK as his “love letter” to horseracing.

Dustin Hoffman and Luck

Michael Mann describes Dustin Hoffman’s movie style of acting as that of a counter puncher, somebody who reacts to what happens, more that drives it. When you think about “Luck,” this seems to be the right MO for the lead character in a gambling series.

“I take a fall…protecting how many people?” Hoffman says, face to face with a leathery faced guy who appears to be the kingpin for a gambling operation he left behind.

In taking this role, Hoffman said in an interview in the FT Times that he had to rethink his acting approach for television. For him, there is a lot of character to be discovered in this role, which will gradually unfold as the series develops.

“I had to rethink the way I’ve been working for the last 40 years,” Hoffman said. “A play is a play, a film is a film – that’s all I have done. But the preparation is different [in television].

“When you’re doing a play or a film, you have to declare who you are as a character. If it’s a play, you can grow from performance to performance. You grow into the part, even though the lines are the same.

“In film, you can’t do that. But with television, you can continue to develop and alter the character. Nothing is set in stone … where you would not make a left turn with a film character, suddenly you can make a right turn.”

In other words, it appears that Hoffman will be driving this HBO series character in directions we might not expect from the premiere.

My Life and Dustin Hoffman

I feel tremendous affinity for Dustin Hoffman, starting with The Graduate and Midnight Cowboy, continuing through Kramer vs. Kramer, and somehow, in a way only Sam Peckinpah understood about men, especially with Straw Dogs.

In Straw Dogs (forget the recent remake; see the original), Hoffman plays the ultimate counter puncher, a bean counter wearing thick glasses, married to smoking hot Susan George in a country that looks to be Ireland. In this movie, his wife is raped by construction workers at the cottage Hoffman and George have rented. The power of the original was primal and was outrageously politically incorrect, insofar as it suggested that Hoffman’s wife was somewhat willingly raped. However disgusting this premise, it made for a highly entertaining drama and represented a very risky role for Hoffman to take.

Then there was The Graduate. I remember seeing this movie and being captivated by the seduction scenes between Hoffman and Anne Bancroft. There was no actual sex, since this was a different time. No less effective, however.  I read the book afterwards, I found the movie so compelling. In this case, the movie was definitely better. 

But the biggest movie impact on me with Hoffman was Midnight Cowboy. I am not sure anyone has played a New York hustler any better than this.

Remember this classic exchange after Joe Buck, (Jon Voight) calls Hoffman “Ratso?”


Ratso Rizzo: You know, in my own place, my name ain’t Ratso. I mean, it just so happens that in my own place my name is Enrico Salvatore Rizzo.
Joe Buck: Well, I can’t say all that.
Ratso Rizzo: Rico, then.

Jodie Foster on Midnight Cowboy

“But the reason I became, why I wanted to be in the business was because there was Midnight Cowboy.”

Next Episode: January 29

Look forward to the actual beginning of Luck on HBO, beginning on January 29, at 9:00 on Sundays.

Click here to see a list of the best gambling books and films ever:




























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