Fat City (1972)

Directed by John Huston
Written by Leonard Gardner

Sports movies are always interesting to me because I love sports. And it doesn’t matter what sport it is, even though I have a particular soft spot for baseball. Boxing movies have long been a Hollywood staple, though their popularity has waned with the sport itself, but The Fighter did manage a Best Picture nomination in 2010. Jeff Bridges has also been a Hollywood staple for nearly 40 years running now. I have come to respect the actor for his more recent performances, but I have just recently begun to discover his first works, when he was just a young buck and this was one of those such films, which just so happened to be directed by another legend, John Huston.

Tully (Stacey Keach) is a washed up boxer who has seen his glory days in the past, but is not just a drunk. He has not boxed for nearly a year when he happened into the local YMCA, where he has an impromptu sparring session with young Ernie (Jeff Bridges), who has never boxed before in his life, but who shows great potential. Tully sends him to his old trainer where he soon begins his career as an amateur. Meanwhile, Tully finds himself a woman (Susan Tyrrell), who is just as broken and drunk as he is, and they form an unlikely relationship. As Ernie improves as a boxer, her gets married to Faye, and motivates Tully, who has been working as a fruit picker, to re-enter the ring as a chance to find his place in this world.

The story here seems incomplete, but in many ways that is the strength of the film. We enter into the world of Tully and Ernie at just the right time, as Tully is struggling and Ernie is on the rise. And we exit the film with minimal resolution, giving the feeling of having just dropped in on the lives of these two men who become connected for just a short time, learning what we need to and then leaving them just as quickly. The film opens with Tully getting out of bed and the music behind it is wonderful, in fact the music throughout the film, supervised by Marvin Hamlisch, is wonderful and really sets the mood for what is a depressing sort of tale. And the film ends in a diner with the same feel to it.

Fat City is a performance film that just so happens to have a really nice feel and style put to it by director John Huston. It really reminded me of a sort of mix between The Last Picture Show, which was released just a year prior and also featured Jeff Bridges, and Raging Bull, which examined the life of a boxer. Both Stacey Keach and Jeff Bridges carry the proceedings here and give really good performances, which is important when the rest of the cast around them fail to convince me of about anything. Susan Tyrrell was actually nominated for an Academy Award for her turn as a drunk lowlife who starts a relationship with Tully, and I guess she wasn’t as bad as the rest of the cast, but her performance was too big for me, even if that is seemingly what the character called for, I still think she went too big for my liking. But nobody was worse than Ernie’s trainer. He felt so fake.

In the end I was neither overly impressed nor disappointed or put off by Fat City. Instead I enjoyed the time I spent with Tully and Ernie, even if their stories never felt all that compelling. The film is paced and structured quite well and again I liked the idea of dropping in on just a part of the story of these two men’s lives, which makes the ending probably the best part of the film as it goes out as quietly as it started. I am still not overly familiar with John Huston and his work, especially in this era. The couple films I saw of his from earlier in his career feel like this one: good, solid work. The exception would be The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which still plays as a masterpiece in my opinion.


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