Many directors of the golden era of Hollywood (the ‘30s and ’40s) found great difficulty transitioning into the more liberal social openness of films of the late 1960s and early ‘70s. Some greats like Frank Capra, Howard Hawks, John Ford and William Wyler quit entirely; Orson Welles couldn’t find financial backings for anything and even Alfred Hitchcock went into semi-retirement. But writer/director John Huston was one of those finest who transitioned rather smoothly, appealing to the more contemporary audiences of new Hollywood.
Huston was a unique filmmaker is so many respects. From his first feature film, “The Maltese Falcon” (1941) the classic crime film, based on the Dashiell Hammett’s famous novel, to his final film “The Dead” (1987), an outstanding adaptation of a James Joyce story, nobody made finer films. And so many of the films made in between like, “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” (1948) “The African Queen” (1951) or “The Man Who Would be King” (1975) were truly unforgettable. Even as an actor, he played one of the most unforgettable villains, Noah Cross in the classic film “Chinatown” (1974). He even holds the unique distinction of directing his father, Walter, and his daughter, Angelica, to Oscar-winning performances in films he directed.
One of Huston’s overlooked more contemporary films is the 1972 “Fat City”, a little known gem, about small-time boxers, set in the depressed city of Stockton, California. This slice of life, character-based drama starred Stacy Keach and then relative newcomer, Jeff Bridges. Shot mostly on location and based on Leonard Gardner’s own adaptation of his novel. “Fat City” is a bleak look at the world of semi-professional boxing.
The opening credit sequence nicely sets this mood with Conrad Hall’s expressive views of the grubby life of a boxer getting out of bed trying to start his day, set to the melancholy lyrics Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make it Through the Night.”
Roger Ebert’s January 1972 full of praise review begins. “Two men, barely ten years apart in age; one with a lifetime of emptiness ahead of him; one with an empty life already behind. This is what John Huston had to work within Fat City and he treats it with lively, unsentimental honesty and makes it into one his best film.”
Billy Tully (Keach) is an out of shape boxer approaching 30 years old, who hasn’t fought in a year and a half, yet who brags, “There was a time when no one could hit me.” He meets 18-year-old Ernie Munger (Bridges) in a local YMCA gym working out. Ernie’s never been in the ring—but has high hopes. The title “Fat City” is a slang reference to a condition of good fortune. This sets the ironic theme for Huston’s film, as the fortunes of these two boxers is anything but great.
The boxers quickly go their own ways. Nicholas Colasanto, later known as the bartender Coach on television’s “Cheers,” plays Ruben, Tully’s trainer, who agrees to take on Ernie. But in Ernie’s first amateur bout has his nose broken and he loses by technical knock out to a young boxer from Salinas. In his second fight, Ernie is knocked out in a mere 33 seconds of the first round.
Both Tully and Ernie develop relationships with women that also don’t amount to much. Tully hooks up with local barfly Oma (Susan Tyrrell) whose present boyfriend was sent to prison. They drink a lot and Oma suggests Tully dress better and clean up more, as he tries various agricultural jobs before returning to the ring. Ernie meets Faye (Candy Clark) who almost immediately suggests they get married. Tully eventually sobers up and goes the distance winning a really rough fight—but the film, like many of New Hollywood, lacks a definite resolution and conclusion. The film’s lead actors Keach, Bridges and Tyrrell are gritty, realistic and powerful. In fact, Tyrell received a best-supporting actress nomination for her role.
According to Huston’s 1980 autobiography An Open Book he recalled, “Fat City” had a great reception when it was first shown at Cannes in 1972…Wherever it was shown it was beautifully reviewed, but the audience didn’t care for it…I suppose the public found it too sad. It had at least one devoted fan: Ray Stark, who considered it the best picture he had ever produced.” I suppose film audiences were waiting for a “feel good” boxing experience like Sylvester Stallone’s “Rocky,” which came in 1976.