April in Chicago — —this year, anyway — —is the cruelest month. On a dreary Monday-morning coming down just after the frenetic early-hour commuter boogie in the Loop, a pall of icewater rain, laced with stinging shards of birdshot sleet, is freezing the streets in a muddy glaze. Despite the vile weather, however, a crowd of about a thousand spectators is milling about in the high-vaulted waiting room at Union Station, an imposing, marble-appointed structure that falls architecturally somewhere between San Simeon and Lourdes.
The crowd, assembled behind police rope barriers, is orderly and polite, but hums with a muted expectancy. All these men, women and children——with the emphasis distinctly on women——are waiting in the waiting room to catch a glimpse of their fantasies fleshed out—to watch Paul Newman and Robert Redford and the English actor Robert Shaw enact a brief location scene for a $4.5 million-budgeted film about Depression-Era con men called The Sting.
Local media hawkshaws are in attendance in force, and several television crews are preparing to record the forthcoming event for a posterity that will extend at least unto the ten o’clock news. Hovering about from out of town, there’s also a toney lady from Time, Inc., a writer from San Francisco, and the critically-esteemed painter-turned-Land film photographer, Marie Cosindas, who, like Julia Child, is made possible by a grant from the Polaroid Corporation. Cosindas, a fragile-featured little woman swaddled to the throat in a black patent-leather greatcoat, ordinarily plies her career by jetting around the country capturing exquisitely-detailed portraits of dandies in the aspic of her Land film, but right now, waiting for the stars to appear, she’s snapping random faces in the crowd.
The lady from Time, Inc., is hopping from one foot to another, looking as if she might just wet her smart Gucci pantsuit at any moment. The reason for her distress, she tells the film’s unit publicist, is that she’s convinced——she knows in her bones——that Newman won’t grant her any time in private. “The last time he gave an interview worth the name,” she complains in a wail, “was in 1967.”
The publicist has troubles of her own — she’s lost her wallet, containing a couple of hundred dollars in cash and all her credit cards. “Maybe I dropped it in the cab,” she frets forlornly. “Or when Newman kissed my hand when I got out of it. Oh, my——what a dear price to pay.”
By mid-morning, the prop men have finished dressing the set, which is a Thirties-vintage newsstand displaying mint copies of such period magazines as Movie Pic, Crime Detective, Love Stories, Lady Beautiful, Air Classics, House Beautiful, Love Novelettes and Radio Guide. Georgia’s primordially racist “Our Gene” Talmadge smiles benignly off the cover of Time. As a final touch, an electrician hooks up a popcorn machine at the end of the newsstand counter, and an assistant director positions 30-odd extras costumed in Depression drag—the women rouged up, the men slicked down—among the oaken waiting room pews.
By now, George Roy Hill, the director who worked with Newman and Redford on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in 1969, is taking an experimental ride on a dolly to calculate whether the setup he has in mind will work. Wearing a baggy, mouse-colored cardigan and a saucily-tilted Alpine hat, Robert Surtees, the chunky little cinematographer who manned the camera on The Last Picture Show, is squinting through a viewfinder at Redford’s uncanny look-alike/stand-in, a young Southern California surfer-type named Greg. “Aw, c’mon, Bob,” Greg teases with a laugh, “roll a few feet, why don’t you. Some of my greatest moments come when I’m clickin’ the ol’ slate.”
A young sailor, his seabag at the heft, has somehow or other managed to wander behind the rope barricades, and he hesitantly taps Surtees on the shoulder. “Hey, what’s goin’ on?” he asks in a voice that hasn’t quite navigated its changes yet. “Gimme a rundown on the picture, would you, sir?” Surtees smiles and traces a finger along the bridge of his broad nose: “Um … well, do you remember The Hustler?” O-eyed, the boy nods yes and stammers that he saw the picture on TV. “Well, in The Hustler, it was pool. In this one, it’s poker. But it’s the same guy.”
Over in the crush of spectators, a fetching young secretary in a Tango ensemble of miniskirt, maxicoat, and high, glossy boots nudges her girlfriend excitedly: “Oh, I’m so thrilled. Nothing like this ever happens in Chicago! I’d even take Redford’s stand-in.” Then her eyes go wide and she squeals, “Oh, my God, look, look! Jesus Christ, it’s him! It’s Paul Newman Superstar!”