By 1969, the career of legendary director John Huston was in an unprecedented slump. Since 1964’s Night of the Iguana, he found his name attached to one misguided project after another (The Bible, Casino Royale, A Walk with Love and Death) and it appeared the glory days of his special cinematic gifts were all but gone. But a crucial thing happened along the way to obscurity. Huston vowed to challenge himself, work through the creative drought, and attack projects of varying styles and types, hoping to freshen what had seemingly become stale and stalwart. While he would again find another zenith of sorts in his 1975 adventure The Man Who Would Be King, the Me Decade started out promising for the larger than life director. He followed the current “independent” movement, then in its infancy, with a small, near perfect look at losers at the very outskirts of social, emotional, and physical poverty. The remarkable Fat City was the unpolished and yet spectacular result of an old fashioned Hollywood filmmaker’s newfound experimentalism. Based on Leonard Gardner’s powerful novel of the same name, the film marked a new era in Huston’s career as the former studio player crafted a motion picture that matched nicely with the early ’70s filmmaking renaissance, when writers and directors conceived cinema as art, not just a profit making business enterprise.
A simple character study of drunks and bums, the naïve and the jaded in personal freefall, Fat City is a film about desperation, about the lengths people will go (and the abuse they will foist upon themselves and others) in the mad desire to break out from the shackles of skid row reality. A small picture in subject but massive in thematic resonance, Fat City explores that lowest of social subsections, visiting (and then staying far beyond) the “wrong side of the tracks” to dwell in the sphere of the truly desolate and downtrodden. This is not a film of sudden epiphanies or life affirming revelations. There is no “big fight” at the end. True, there is a contest between the main character and a washed-up Mexican boxer, a final shot at personal salvation for the more or less useless hero. But this is not Rocky. There is no bag of riches or life-altering resolution at the final sounding of the bell. There is hardly even redemption. Fat City shows us that, even in victory there is potential defeat and that sometimes, in the most horrid and painful of losses, a little human dignity can still be salvaged. The people living on the edge of society aren’t just going through the motions; they are being moved, as life size game pieces, in God’s own private joke game of Life. Unfortunately, they never seem to come up winners.
The themes of rehabilitation and destiny play a huge role in Fat City. Each character at the beginning of the film has gone to seed in some manner or another. Tully is broken, a horrible lush who still carries the body of a prizefighter, if not the mental concentration. Ernie is a neophyte, an untested specimen in the arena of boxing, love and life. Oma is emotionally and mentally void, using alcohol as a means of killing what little feeling and grasp on reality she has left. And while seemingly well adjusted, Ruben too is dispirited, trading on the bodies and brainlessness of his fighters for a few dollars and the dream of the big time. Destiny is always at odds with the players in Fat City. From how they live to the means of pursuing their dreams, the social circumstances preordain their choices, seeming always to lead to failure and unhappiness. The characters are fated to the fringe, a place where righteousness seldom stops to roost. In their Fat City, a date with a naïve virgin spills into a legal and biological arrangement for life; the failure to follow a potentially profitable fighter to Panama means a trip back to the boondocks for the manager and the bottom of a beer barrel for his could-have-been-champion charge; and the personal desire to interact with another, similar minded and mixed drink companion leads to homelessness and heartache. Try as they might, Dame Fortune has passed over the denizens of Fat City, perhaps because even on her own ethereal level, she too can find no hope for them.
This is truly an actor’s movie, and as for the performances, they are flawless. Stacey Keach doesn’t “play” Billy Tully so much as he embodies him, transforming his posture and mannerisms into a rye soaked, borderline punch-drunk lowlife whose will to live (and die) comes from whiskey that all but shatters his simple ideals. Keach has never been a superstar, but it’s not for lack of talent. His Tully is a fully realized icon, a genuine lost soul with the physical stamina to work the migrant vegetable circuit but the emotional scars and damage to dissolve into a stupor as well. He is filled with conflicting desires but seems destined to slip into a fifth of forgetfulness rather than do anything of substance about them. It is a great acting accomplishment, as is Jeff Bridges’ turn as the damned Ernie. In this young idealist you can see how Tully came to this point in his life, and why Ernie seems meant for the same. Not so much a character as a dramatic straight man to the despondency and depravity around him, there is a naïve charm and wistful acceptance in Bridges’ demeanor, using his inexperience and vitality to underwrite a slow walk into the fetid underbelly of life. His distance and thoughtfulness allows the audience to enter and interpret the world that he functions within. While not as showy as the other roles in the film, Bridges still captivates the screen with his interpretation of the soon to be walking wounded.
But at the core of Fat City are two performances, wildly dissimilar in tone but equally powerful and telling in their framing of the story. Anyone who remembers the character of Coach from Cheers will be amazed by the stellar work of Nicholas Colasanto as Ruben, Tully’s onetime (and Ernie’s current) boxing manager. An old time pugilist who wears every fight he’s ever had or been involved in on his open, broken face, Ruben is a realist, the epitome of a diehard, even-as-it-is-slowly-killing-you spirit of those scrapping at the very bottom. Crazily optimistic and trying not to give in to the bleakness and misery of his surroundings, Ruben is convinced that he is just one fighter away from success, but also resigned to make his chump change off the sweat and blood of inexperienced street scufflers willing to sacrifice their bodies for a few dollars. On the opposite end of the sullen spectrum is the amazing work of Academy Award nominee Suzanne Tyrrell (for her role here) as the perpetually pickled Oma. Drunken to the point of incoherence and damaged to almost physical immobility, many may find Tyrrell’s manner over the top and shrill. But in reality, she is phenomenal. Bitter and funny, she paints a portrait of a woman so lost in liquor and its depressive properties (both emotional and chemical) that any doorway out has long since closed. For now she is left abandoned and misplaced in her own private universe, complete with its own moral codes, lunatic logic, and social graces. Oma represents the very bottom, the dead end to where all the characters are potentially headed. Tyrrell’s bravery in making it a very unpleasant, painful place to experience deserves as much credit and recognition as can be given.
While all this may seem too down and out to be entertaining, it’s a credit to Huston’s long perfected directing and narrative style that the film ends up saying something positive, even as it wallows in the seemingly miserable lives of these characters. Ruben is hope. Or at least help. Oma is gloom. In between are Billy and Ernie. Ernie may be good enough to make a go of boxing, even if with Ruben he can only rise to the level of street hustling fights in off circuit venues. Billy is transfixed by Oma, seeing her as a potential drink and soul mate. Until they move in together, that is, and her near infantile dependency loses its charm and becomes a noose. Billy doesn’t want to end up pouring his existence out of a wine jug. But in a stunning shot at the very end of the movie, he has a moment of clarity, a lucid frame in his downward life spiral that indicates exactly where he is and where he will be the rest of his life. Leave it to the old pro Huston to constantly manufacture magic movie moments like that, and always find the proper tone, setting, and performance to underline his themes. From the opening moments where we fly over the urban renovations of the San Francisco/California scenery and slowly arrive in the tenements of Stockton, we understand that we are in the hands of a brilliant, classic filmmaker. Huston explores the landscape, both inner and outer, in Fat City and creates a spellbinding, exceptional motion picture, and a near timeless classic.