John Huston -- Hollywood's maverick master -- is known for movies like "The Maltese Falcon" (1941), "The Treasure of Sierra Madre" (1948), "The African Queen" (1951), "The Misfits"(1961) and for many other excellent films. His critical hit and come-back movie (he was 66 yrs old) "Fat City" (1972) is the rejuvenated director's contribution to the New Wave of Hollywood cinema. Fat City is a grim downbeat study of a fighter -- a disillusioned 29-year-old boxer Bill Tully. The movie was mainly notable for its terrific performance all around, especially from Stacy Keach as Tully. We also could see the "Big Lebowski" fame Jeff Bridges as a baby-faced, wide-eyed 18 year old kid.
The story is set in Stockton, California, which looks like a wasteland of smoky bars and sun-bleached streets. At the start, a washed-up, hard drinking boxer Billy Tully (Keach) briefly encounters a younger version of himself, Ernie (Jeff Bridges), in a gym. He immediately sponsors the boy and asks him to meet up with his former manager and gym owner Ruben (Nicholas Colasanto). It's been years since Tully has fought in the ring. His wife has left him after the loss in a championship match in Panama. From then on, he has become a full-time bum and drowns his sorrows in a local bar.
Tully meets a alcoholic Oma (Susan Tyrrell), who is more messed up than him. He sees her as someone to whom, he can pour his frustrations into while emphasizing, both inwardly and outwardly, his ‘strong points’ (“I’ve never hit a woman in my life”). Tully is also glad that at least he is not in jail like Faye's most recent husband, Earl.
Meanwhile, Ernie's amateur boxing career is full of hits and misses. At a time when Ernie is looking to turn into a pro, his pregnant girlfriend Faye (Candy Clark) snares the nice guy into marrying her. Apart from the talk of future glories and past successes, these guys never know any other world than the back-street gymnasiums and cheap boxing-rings where battered managers exchange confidences about their disappointments and dreams, and where in a sad climax two sick men beat each other half to death for a few dollars and a temporary glory.
Director John Huston is said to be a professional fighter in his youth. So he has clearly invested all the fighting experience in his hungry young performers. Stacy Keach's Tully is similar to Brando's Terry Malloy in "On the Waterfront", where he all but gives the speech "I coulda been a contender." Keach, whether waltzing in the boxing ring or picking onions, he is very affecting. A viewer could feel his melancholic position, especially in the aftermath of a prolonged fistfight, where he wonders if he has been knocked out (even though he has won it).
Susan Tyrrell's drunken antics and shameless face-pulls as Oma gives the film a compelling subtext. She plays one of the most believable drunks I've ever seen on screen. Jeff Bridges gives a graceful performance as one of the skinniest boxer in movies. Huston has directed this movie with the same puritanical rigour he brought in his old classics. Stockton -- the go-getting modern American community is stunningly shot by Conrad L. Hall. Gardener's script (he also wrote the novel) defines time, place, mood, and character without great amount of dialogue.
"Fat City" is not a feel good, upbeat sports drama. If you are in a mood to appreciate a marvelous understated character study, then it's a must watch.
Fat City - IMDb