Seen by Martin before? No
What did I expect? I had no clue what this movie is about.
What did I get? I’d heard Fat City touted before; in the context of John Huston’s long and illustrious career, it seemed a curio, an outlier. It is startling how thoroughly Huston, an old master of the studio system, was able to absorb the bracing, risky tenets of the New Cinema emerging at that very moment. Set in unglamorous Stockton, California, Fat City is an exquisitely undemonstrative and unsentimental character study of two semipro boxers as low in the rankings as they are on the social scale. It feels even more finely observed and “true-to-life” than, say, Five Easy Pieces; indeed, had someone insisted to me that Bob Rafelson had directed it, I would’ve bought it in a heartbeat.
Fat City is structured as the parallel, tenuously connected stories of two boxers who seldom interact, hence counterpoint is suggested. Jeff Bridges plays Ernie Munger, an empty-headed kid who takes up boxing and appears to have some potential to move up in the rankings, but … given what we see in the other story, it’s safe to assume that he won’t. For his part, Keach’s Billy Tully, also a boxer and sometime itinerant worker, is a bit older, not too much wiser, intermittently indignant over the external forces holding his boxing career back. They share a no-nonsense trainer, played by Nicholas Colasanto, who would later become much more famous as “Coach” on Cheers.
The take on women here is a bit bleak. Munger has a steady squeeze who more or less pressures him into marrying her, while Tully hooks up with the indelible barfly Oma, who deserves a whole movie for herself. Susan Tyrrell is so incredibly effective in the role — by turns belligerent, self-pitying, petulant, affectionate — that it is possible to believe the woman is not acting. It’s one of the best performances I’ve seen in the Boffo project — and Keach isn’t far behind. The scenes between the two of them are simply masterpieces of observational cinema.
Like Hoop Dreams, Fat City straddles the line between sports movie and regular movie; another way of putting this is that it’s a sports movie that exchanges the usual conventions of last-minute victory for a realistic emphasis on failure, the place where ambitions die. Huston seems like a director who hankered after considerable effect, and showy effect is precisely what Fat City lacks. The movie has so little in the way of momentous dramatic turning points, it feels practically French.
What here smacks of 1972? The lack of big narrative revelations, the willingness to show life as it “really” is.
IMDB score: 7.3
My score: 9
Director: John Huston
Writer: Leonard Gardner
Starring: Stacy Keach, Jeff Bridges, Susan Tyrrell, Candy Clark, Nicholas Colasanto, Art Aragon, Curtis Cokes, Sixto Rodriguez, Billy Walker, Wayne Mahan, Ruben Navarro
IMDB synopsis: The film tells the story of two boxers and their problems. One of them is on the decline of his career while the other one just begins his ascent in this sport.