John Huston was one of the mavericks of Old Hollywood even surpassing his own father’s acclaim in the industry. Although his successes waxed and waned during the 1970s, he found new prominence as both an actor (Chinatown) and a reinvigorated director. Fat City is no question his hidden gem of the decade, if not his entire oeuvre.
It’s true that it taps into the boxing world so prevalent in the tragic noir tales of old. As a one-time amateur fighter and one of the screenwriters on The Killers (1946) a few decades prior, he seems to have the license to resurrect the tradition.
In fact, the expected archetype here might look a little like a very different film: All About Eve. You have the washed-up vet and then the up-and-coming talent.
Except Fat City settles uneasily into those paths before rebuffing them completely to provide an alternative, still partially devastating but certainly authentic to life. There is a touch of melancholy here. Not to knock Stockton, but the location certainly helps. As does Kris Kristofferson’s morose ballad “Help Me Make It Through The Night.”
The dramatic situation generally moseys along taking its sweet time. As the plot parallels the characters, there is nothing flashy here, no insurance investigator from The Killers to go digging around. We live and exist in the characters’ day-to-day realities at a leisurely pace. If anything, Huston is observational, intent on using the allotted screen time to get at these men, not because of their extraordinariness but due to the complexities available in their inherent ordinariness.
Stacy Keach for one is a washed-up boxer who has ambitions to get himself back in fighting shape. At any rate, getting beaten to a pulp for money is a much better prospect than what he’s doing with his life currently. He wears the life of a loser quite well, so much so, it’s easy enough to believe he’s been taking a beating in all facets of his existence.
The legend goes Marlon Brando was tapped for the part though it never panned out. Despite his admitted brilliance as an acting force, Brando would have automatically elevated the pedigree of the picture. Somehow having Keach, a man who never was a big draw, feels more in line with this story. Because one of the most promising feats of Fat City is there is no big star and so it’s perpetually a movie of inspired character parts.
Jeff Bridges is the other guy — a kid really — who takes up the other man’s advice to join Lido gym and try and get into the fight game. The coach there and an old buddy of Tully’s is rather like a father figure to Ernie. The stocky, throaty-voiced Ruben (Nicholas Colasanto), looks and sounds like he got punched in the gullet once too many but for undertaking such a violent profession, he overflows with geniality.
Perpetually whiny-voiced Linda Tyrrell toes the fine line between totally antagonistic and totally condoling. There is so much dysfunction in her life; she is the instigator of some of it and yet a lot falls outside of her control. Thus, the relationships she has with the men in her life — first, a man named Earl and then Tully, really reflect her own insecurities.
At times, clinging and then in another moment lashing out with indignant rage. In one barb pointed directly at Tully she even proclaims, “White men are the vermin of the earth.”
Meanwhile, Ernie finds a very different sort of girl (Candy Clark), a bit of a warm-hearted simpleton who cares so deeply that they are madly in love and that everything in their romance is perfect. The naivete is her calling card though it never is given roots in the story to the degree of her female costar.
In any given interaction, these people make you laugh for the strange words that come out of their mouth unwittingly. It’s a distraction from what might otherwise be the blaring issue of their sorry existences. They might be struggles with a traveling trunk or continuously slipping in the mud trying to get a car moving in the pouring rain.
The movie takes particular heed of the foibles found in the world of boxing. All the pretense has been washed away — not merely in a gritty, unsentimental manner — it verges on the comical because it’s willing to paint the characters and their idiosyncrasies with a clear definition.
Conrad Hall has quite the impressive pedigree as a director of photography providing texture to some of the most seminal films of a generation including Cool Hand Luke and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Whether Stockton serves his cinematography or his cinematography serves our normal perceptions of Stockton, ultimately they become one in the same.
The environment of Fat City seems to cultivate a certain brand of person — at least cinematically speaking — losers and has-beens, maybe a few chipper up-and-comers. It’s the perfect arena for banal everyday drudgery to play out.
It meets the men in the bars where they douse their miseries. Before the crack of dawn where they hang around to work for pennies and in the afternoons when they work the fields with the sun beating down. If this is a boxing story it’s just as much a tale of destitution.
Likewise, I had never given full consideration to how much boxing is built around racial lines (not to mention social ones). Fighters are promoted, railed against, and canonized as heroes based on the communities around them. Based on a shared culture and a similar color of skin. The blacks. The Whites. The Mexicans. They all have their guys.
Ruben is constantly looking to make his clients more marketable. He knows “whites vs. coloreds” will draw a bigger crowd, and they play up Ernie’s Irish blood though he doesn’t have a drop. It’s all part of the business.
Although it’s capable of making us queasy as an audience, boxing just might be the most compelling sport in movies for how it pertains so intimately to the human experience. There is hardship, chaos, violence, euphoria — all these things playing out blow after blow inside this incubator that is the ring. Except in Fat City, the moments are never monumental. They are incremental peaks and valleys. No heroic death scenes are won nor rapid ascensions to the top of the world.
The anticlimax is this film’s final tragedy. Its irony exists right in the title. These characters get none of the glut or glory when it comes to the good life, in and outside the ring. Theirs is the marrow and the crumbs.