>> Sunday, June 10, 2012
USA/C-100m./Dir: John Huston/Wr: Leonard Gardner/Cast: Stacey Keach (Billy Tully), Jeff Bridges (Ernie Munger), Susan Tyrrell (Oma), Nicholas Colasanto (Ruben), Candy Clark (Faye), Art Aragon (Babe), Curtis Cokes (Earl)
“Just when you get started, your life makes a beeline for the drain.” – Tully (Stacy Keach) in Fat City (1972)
So many exceptional films were lensed in the 1970s that several of the decade’s releases that were merely very good have been forgotten with the passing of time. Fat City is one such movie. Celebrated in 1972 as a late career return-to-form by director John Huston after a series of critical and box office bombs, this slice-of-life drama about boxing, boozing, and broken dreams is rarely mentioned in discussions of 70’s films or of Huston’s filmography. While Fat City doesn’t stand as tall Huston’s best--The Maltese Falcon and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre for example--it deserves to be better remembered than it is.
Adapted from a novel of the same name, Fat City tells the story of two low-stakes prizefighters as they drift, drink, and dream the Stockton, California area. Stacey Keach, sans mustache, stars as Billy Tully, a retired boxer nearing thirty. Tully dreams of getting another shot at glory in the ring, but he spends most of his time in dive bars getting loaded and blaming other people for the disappointments in his life. During one of Tully’s few attempts to work out, he spars with Ernie Munger (Jeff Bridges), a young, low-talent amateur. The older fighter sees potential in the kid and talks him into training with his old manager, Ruben (Nicholas Colasanto).
While Ruben tries to shape the up-and-comer into a prizefighter, Tully sidles back to the bar and into the arms of another alky, Oma (Susan Tyrrell). Tully shacks up with Oma and picks crops to finance their juicehead lifestyle, but he can’t shake his pugilistic dreams. Meanwhile, Munger has had disappointments of his own, and he also has to turn to day labor to pay the bills. When the two former fighters encounter each other on a migrant farm gig, they decide to give boxing one last try.
If you’re looking for an uplifting underdog story, you best look elsewhere. From Fat City’s opening sequence, set to Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make it Through the Night,” a mood of melancholy hangs over the movie. Before the fighters step into the ring, their downfall is more or less assured. In truth, despite a few well-filmed prizefights, Fat City really isn’t a sports movie. It’s a slice of life drama about pipe dreams, self-delusion, and alcoholism--much closer to The Iceman Cometh than Rocky.
Still, Fat City is not nearly as depressing as it may sound. The film has a sly, sometimes brutal sense of humor, which comes across most prominently in the scenes depicting the turbulent, liquor-fueled relationship between Tully and Oma (which may remind soused cinema enthusiasts of the central relationship in Barfly). Actually, Susan Tyrell’s performance as Oma is the real standout of the picture (although Keach is no slouch). Never has an actor portrayed an irrational dipsomaniac with more truth and humor. Her performance is nothing short of mesmerizing and is reason enough to seek out the film.
Fat City is worth a rediscovery. You'll be glad you sampled John Huston's late-career concoction.
Drinks Consumed—Beer, sherry, whiskey, and unnamed liquor
Intoxicating Effects—Sneaking sips, slurred speech, stumbling, belching, boasting, bickering, and public disturbance
Potent Quotables—EARL: The thing you’ve got to understand about her--she’s a juicehead.
TULLY: I know. She won’t eat either.
EARL: Yeah. That’s on account of her unhappy life and all that shit. Nothin’ I can do about that, so I don’t let it worry me none.
Video Availability--DVD (Sony)
Similarly Sauced Cinema--John Huston took on the subject of alcoholism again with another literary adaptation, Under the Volcano (1984).