Pros: Keach, Bridges, Clark and especially Tyrell are excellent, as is the script
Cons: The film's been largely forgotten since its release
Operating in the middle ground between Martin Scorsese's absolutely brutal Raging Bull and the feel-good fantasy land of John G. Avildsen's Rocky, John Huston's 1972 Fat City comes across as a forgotten slice of gritty '70s cinema that sits quite nicely alongside other, much more heralded works such as Scorsese’s films from the period. Somehow, despite boasting a wonderful script performed by a top-notch cast, a star director at the top of his game, and superb photography that captures the gloomy locales of grimy boxing halls and back alleys, this film has been largely forgotten in the bigger scheme of motion picture history. I wasn't even aware of this film until fairly recently, as it was mentioned in a book I was reading, and I'm glad I gave it a watch since it is enthralling viewing well-deserving of a popular renaissance.
The film follows the story of down-and-out boxer Billy Tully. Tully's about to turn 30, hasn't had a pro fight in over a year, and supports his heavy drinking habit by working as a farm laborer. We join Tully just as he meets a young boxing prospect named Ernie one day at the YMCA. Tully gets Ernie started on his boxing career, and suddenly finds himself inspired to get back into the ring himself. This, however, proves to be a chore, as Tully's fallen into a rough but convenient life living from bottle to bottle, wasting his time away at the local bar. Although he finally does muster up the courage to reunite with his manager and start hitting the gym in preparation for a headlining bout, will it prove to be too little, too late to stop his downward spiral into depression and solitude?
Director Huston's film is an abrupt about face from just about anything else he had ever produced, a long way from his earlier big-budget and grandiose studio films. Quite honestly, if he weren't told otherwise, one might be inclined to believe that one of the young, film-school punks just starting out in the 1970s (like a Scorsese or Spielberg) had directed this downbeat slice-of-life character study, not an undisputed Hollywood legend. Nevertheless, Huston's work here is spectacular, perfectly capturing the rather despondent characters who inhabit the screenplay by Leonard Gardner, a work that captures and conveys the feelings of ennui that had rooted itself in the popular mindset by the early 1970s.
Huston's camera set-ups, lensed by the great Conrad Hall, are designed to heighten the film's sense of authenticity, and the boxing scenes found in this picture (happening in smokey, grime-encrusted gymnasiums) are a far cry from the hyper-stylized set-ups in Scorsese's Raging Bull. Huston instead captures the action matter-of-factly and rather bluntly; this film seems to have been an inspiration for Darren Aronofsky's handling of similar themes in his 2008 film The Wrestler. The locations in the film seem real, almost universally filthy and grungy, particularly when showing the frankly disgusting flophouses Tully occupies, and the entire film seems true to life and far from glamorous.
Playing the roles in this film is a wonderful, at the time unknown cast of actors. Stacy Keach plays Tully as a disenfranchised everyman who's more or less scraping by a meager existence. One can't help but feel for the guy, but Tully seems to constantly undermine any potential that he has, reverting to his old habits of drinking and reminiscing instead of working hard to regain his former status. A young Jeff Bridges appears as Ernie, a character who's place in the film stands as a sort of comparison to Tully's. While we're led to believe that Tully got ahead in the boxing game from the start due to his natural skill, Ernie faces hardships during his first forays in the ring. Additionally, Ernie soon settles down with his pregnant girlfriend (played remarkably well by Candy Clark), and seems well-adjusted to life both in and especially out of the boxing ring. This is about the opposite of Tully's personal life as it is in shambles. Following his wife walking out on him, Tully has given up much hope of improvement, and he ends up shacking up with the local alcoholic floozy Oma (Susan Tyrell in a magnificent performance) and the two of them barely squeak by, bickering at every turn.
Nearly every member of the cast is fantastic and the resulting interactions between the characters is quite poignant. While the scenes showing Ernie and his girlfriend experiencing the joy and trials of young love are few, these scenes are very well played and written in a way that one can easily relate to. Similarly authentic-feeling are the interactions between Tully and Oma. These two are hopeless alcoholics, and appear to almost constantly be sloshed and messy, yet they seem destined to be together much as one would expect such people to be drawn together in real life. Keach's portrayal really hammers home the film's central ideas about his character's self-destructive tendencies and as an audience, we really grow to understand the character and his boozy mindset. Tyrell is a marvel in her role, her performance is so life-like it almost defies belief. Having previously only seen her in cult-like films such as Andy Warhol's Bad and Forbidden Zone, I was floored by her performance here, which is probably one of the most striking portrayals of alcoholism every seen in the cinema. All of these roles are expertly formed in Gardner's script, and are performed magnificently, really bringing this film to life for the viewer.
It's quite a shame that this film isn't more well-known and recognized. It's highly regarded in many circles, yet it has slipped through the cracks since its release and fallen to the wayside in favor of more popular and high-profile pieces of 1970’s cinema. Fat City is less of a boxing movie and more of a character study and, let's face it, it came out the same year as The Godfather, so it's somewhat understandable that this film is fairly obscure, but I'd easily have to place it in the upper echelons of worthwhile 1970s cinema. Anyone appreciative of the gritty, street-wise cinema that started to gain notoriety in the early 1970s really should give this early effort a shot. The cast, scripting, and photography are outstanding, and I'd classify it as a sleeper pick for director Huston's best film.
Blood & Guts = The expecting boxing violence and plenty of emotional assaults
Profanity = A few wayward words, but nothing major
Fap Factor = Tyrell’s alcoholic floozy is pretty loose, but that action’s kept off-screen