John Huston’s overlooked masterpiece follows the struggles of boxers and boozers in Northern California.
At what point does life pass you by? When and how do you reconcile yourself that your hopes and dreams, no matter how sincere, are not going to come true? John Huston’s superb 1972 life-on-the-skids drama Fat City, adapted by Leonard Gardner from his own novel, follows two boxers who pass each other on the escalator of success. One is rising just slightly up, the other is starting a long road down. The two are guided by a trainer and manager whose belief in the sweet science is an act of faith, and hindered by women who trap them for the most mundane of reasons. There are no miraculous comebacks planned, no short trips to glory. Their tragedy is that they are average, working class people in a working class sport, in a small city where work is almost all there is.
Yet Huston (who spent a brief time as an amateur boxer himself) and Gardner never let the story get bogged down, focusing instead on character development and context rooted in compassion. Billy Tully (Stacy Keach) was once a promising heavyweight until an ill-fated marriage combined with a disastrous loss in Panama to end his career. Reduced to sleeping in flophouses and working the fields outside the dreary Northern California town of Stockton, as the film begins he’s nonetheless not quite finished with himself. Working out at the YMCA, he happens across Ernie Munger (Jeff Bridges), a kid fresh out of high school with talent to burn. Tully recognizes Ernie’s gift and encourages him to see his old manager Ruben Luna (Nicholas Colasanto).
Ruben takes the boy under his wing, training him and putting him into a stable of up-and-coming fighters who tour neighboring towns to fight in gritty matches with small purses and high risks of injury. Ernie loses his first fight, even getting his nose broken, but throughout Ruben encourages his fighters with visions of riches to come. An early scene in which the old man expresses his hopes for Ernie to his wife tells his life’s story: she doesn’t bother rousing from a half-sleep to listen, because she’s heard it many times before, about many fighters who’ve come and gone.
Meanwhile Tully has fallen into the orbit of a bitter drunk named Oma (Susan Tyrrell), stealing her away from her imprisoned boyfriend over the course of one long, boozy conversation. The two settle into a shabby domesticity, with Tully sliding into the part of caretaker and companion to Oma’s blowsy dissipation. The two are so pathetic in their slow-burning need for one another, with Keach and Tyrrell so adept at circling each other, that the scenes focused on them are almost painful to watch.
Ernie keeps fighting, winning amateur matches while planning the arrival of a child with his girlfriend Faye (Candy Clark). Tired and exhausted by the rigors of the fields, Tully returns to Ruben’s gym, getting himself together long enough to qualify for a comeback match. But his previous career casts a long shadow, and Ruben is only able to secure him a match against Arcadio Lucero (Sixto Rodriguez), a Mexican fighter with a reputation for fierce efficiency. Tully wins the long and brutal bout, not so much from his own skill as from Lucero’s secret kidney injury. “Did I get knocked out?” Tully asks as the final bell rings. Rather than gloat, he embraces the hurting Lucero, giving the film a moment of transcendent grace.
A moment that doesn’t last. Tully has no more left the match than a long-simmering grudge against Ruben erupts again, sending him into a self-destructive tailspin that’s worsened by finding Oma reunited with her paroled boyfriend (real-life welterweight champ Curtis Cokes). The final scenes of the film are a heartbreaker. Tully and Ernie kill time in a decrepit cafe, with a possibly punchdrunk, possibly drunk Tully realizing the emptiness of the life before him in a devastating moment of clarity. The story ends with the ambivalence that was so common throughout the 70s, challenging the audience to put the pieces together for themselves.
Huston and cinematographer Conrad L. Hall (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) cast the town of Stockton, full of Depression-era buildings and rooms poorly lit by too much flourescent glare, with an objectivity that never condemns or celebrates the town’s ramshackle durability. Like its inhabitants, the town weathered adversity but didn’t come out of hard times unscathed. The cast, Keach and Tyrrell especially, give their roles a profoundly lived-in feel (ironic for Keach, given his subsequent well-publicized battles with drug addiction) that rings true without ever seeming patronizing. Keach is mesmerizing, allowing glimmers of youth and charm to shine through Tully’s hard knock present, even while bitterness and rage keep him from moving forward.
Of the supporting characters, while Colasanto would later carve a place for himself in TV history as Ernie “Coach” Pantusso on Cheers, here he’s equally moving as a trainer with bigger hopes than he can handle. Finally, real-life lightweight champion Rodriguez, in his only film appearance, makes the most of every second as the outwardly menacing Lucero. Watch for the scene of him leaving the arena alone after the fight, departing with his dignity intact despite defeat.
- Michael Kabel