Fat City (Blu-ray Review)28 Sep, 2015 By: Mike Clark
Available via ScreenArchives.com
Stars Stacy Keach, Jeff Bridges, Susan Tyrrell, Candy Clark.
With Leonard Gardner’s still rhapsodically praised source novel just reissued in a new paperback edition, the Blu-ray timing seems simpatico for its screen adaptation, which was regarded by nearly everyone at the time as John Huston’s comeback picture. As it turned out, and leaving box office returns out of it, 1972 was an extraordinary year for aging titans bent on proving they still had something left: Hitchcock with Frenzy, Billy Wilder with Avanti! and even George Cukor with the spotty but wholly auteur-ish Travels With My Aunt. And this isn’t event addressing Luis Bunuel and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, which got even better reviews that year than The Godfather.
Huston’s take on Gardner’s Fat City ended up making a lot of 10-best lists, though it’s still a movie a lot of people don’t know — people who were instead probably going to the stagebound Neil Simon play-to-pic of the week (though, come to think, Simon had the best movie year of his career in ’72 by virtue of penning the screenplay to The Heartbreak Kid). Even by the standards of other boxing movies not named Rocky, Huston’s unsentimental treatment results in an inevitably downbeat affair — one with a backdrop that almost makes Robert Ryan’s moldy-jockstrap milieu in Robert Wise’s The Set-Up look genteel. But there’s a lot of heart here as well.
This is a story of two fighters with distractions, one of them over the hill and the other a youth trying to figure if he wants to take more than one or two steps up the slope. The older one (Stacy Keach, in the high point of his screen career) fantasizes about a comeback that competes with his saloon time and tortured memories of the woman who left him. The other (Jeff Bridges, already an Oscar nominee but not that far out of the acting gate) has a squeeze of his own plus on-and-off visions of a marital future — though even without all this on his mind, he’s also missing the gene necessary for successful follow-through in a career as demanding as boxing. The two like each other but lead separate lives in Stockton, Calif., which isn’t exactly portrayed as Club Med material here. Even when it gets out of the gym and into the so-called great outdoors, the setting is in migrant worker hell, which is where Keach’s character (Tully) often finds himself when trying to rub together enough coins to pay for the glorified flophouses in which he resides (one, for a while, with someone else’s woman).
The last mentioned is one of the ‘A’-list barflies from the modern screen era, and Susan Tyrrell got an Oscar nomination for playing her — as well as second-place finishes in ’72 from both the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics. Huston directed Claire Trevor to an Oscar for playing a slightly more dignified second cousin to this downtrodden creature in 1948’s Key Largo, a notably rich year for the filmmaker given that The Treasure of the Sierra Madre also came out and won three major Oscars itself. Fat City, however, sprung him from a fallow period that extended back 14 long years to The Barbarian and the Geisha. Even The Misfits and Reflections in a Golden Eye, to name two films from this time span whose critical fortunes have risen over time, were regarded as high-profile busts upon their release (I myself have a fondness for The Night of the Iguana, but it didn’t make many dents, either, with critics or customers).
There’s some high-priced talent here — Ray Stark was producer; Conrad Hall was cinematographer not long after his Butch Cassidy Oscar — but the film has the feel of a dirt cheapie in ways that seem liberating, especially in terms of the characterizations. Huston allows Tyrell and Nicholas Colasanto (a pip as his fighters’ hype-happy manager) to be expansive in their acting, but his portrayals of Tyrell’s preferred squeeze (Curtis Cokes) and Keach’s final opponent (Sixto Rodriguez) get a lot out of a little and are models of screen economy. Both of the latter performers, by the way, were ex-fighters, and these were their only movie roles.
Even with the novel’s acclaim, film and maybe boxing junkies were the only ones who turned out; when you look at how many subsequent ’70s durables failed to graduate beyond critics-darling status at the time (Bridges had Bad Company the same year), it’s just incredible that audiences failed to appreciate what they had until home video instigated a “correction” in reputations. But City got a lot of positive ink just the same, and only three years later, Huston scored heavily with longtime dream project The Man Who Would Be King — though not before stumbling again with The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean and The Mackintosh Man (which Andrew Sarris liked, so I’ll take a fresh look before I die).
It all goes to show that Huston’s filmography may be more exasperating than any director’s of his stature, but I don’t think there are many who don’t regard City as a high point in his five-decade career (six, if you include the screenwriting years before his directorial debut with The Maltese Falcon).