In our continuing series of ’47 Films to see before you’re murdered in your dreams’, we look at John Huston’s grimly brilliant boxing picture Fat City.
The fact of the matter is there have been more decent Boxing pictures than there have been decent boxing matches and John Huston’s Fat City is one of the best. Stacey Keach is the man who wakes up in his underwear in a flea pit boarding house, his bottle down to the dregs and unable to find a light. As Kris Kristoferson – who was legally required to write a song for every US film from 1971 to 1974 – croons about headaches, Billy Tully (Keach) stumbles out onto the street and heads for the gym where he is hoping to perhaps pick up the pieces. Here he meets young Ernie (Jeff Bridges) and the two spar. Tully’s comeback seems already over when he pulls a muscle but on his advice, Ernie goes to the local gym where he is taken on by Tully’s old coach Ruben (Nicholas Colasanto, who played coach in Cheers).
This is no Rocky, or Million Dollar Baby, or Raging Bull, or Southpaw. Those films all follow a similar trajectory, a rise and fall. They all perceive their particular fighter as in some way special – a contender. In Fat City, both Ernie and Tully are nothing special, except for the novelty that they’re white fighting among the black and Mexicans who make up the circuit. Ernie is particularly inept as a boxer and gets himself knocked out in his first bout, his nose broken badly in the next. When he does win a fight by a decision, we don’t even see it. Tully’s belated comeback fight is a brutal affair against another old fighter who is a similarly aging slugger and who pisses blood before the fight.
This is John Steinbeck country, or something Charles Bukowski might have written if he’d stopped for a second writing books about himself. Poor Californians – both Ernie and Tully end up fruit picking at one point – along with the poverty and possible brain damage, Tully has the additional abuse of alcoholism to contend with and a relationship with fellow boozer Oma (a magnificent Susan Tyrell), who for a moment gives him companionship but ultimately torments him. Ernie also has a girl Faye (Candy Clarke) and things seem more hopeful when he gets her pregnant and marries her.
Adapted from his own novel by Leonard Gardner, Fat City is a film that refuses the glamour of the usual boxing pic. There’s no escape from poverty – Cinderella Man – there’s no redemption or defeating of demons, no glory and no glamour. In the end there’s a brutal honesty and a small perfect epic about the losers who never get to Fat City.