In 1972, John Huston hadn’t made a movie in Hollywood for more than a decade. He’d been living in Ireland in semi-exile following 1961’s doom-laden The Misfits, overseeing overheated curiosities like Night of the Iguana and Reflections in a Golden Eye, or misguided money gigs like Dino De Laurentiis’ The Bible: In The Beginning…. Huston pictures from this period have their defenders, but it was generally agreed that the glory days of The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and The Asphalt Jungle were long behind the then-66-year-old filmmaker. This all changed when Fat City played at the Cannes Film Festival. With a screenplay adapted by Leonard Gardner from his own novel, this staunchly unsentimental ode to washouts and losers was the critical and commercial hit that put Huston back on top — a perch from which he preened as New Hollywood’s irascible father-in-law figure until his death in 1987.
You have to get dinged around a bit by life before you can make a movie like Fat City, a film that dwells in disappointment without making a big deal about it. Set on Stockton, California’s skid row, the largely plotless picture stars Stacy Keach as Billy Tully, a genial never-was whose semi-promising boxing career was cut short due to women and drinking. Or maybe he just wasn’t any good. Pushing 30 and swearing he’s gonna get back into fighting shape soon, Billy spots 18-year-old amateur Ernie Munger fooling around at the YMCA and sees something of himself in the kid, for better and worse. Played by an impossibly young Jeff Bridges, Ernie is soon being coached by Billy’s old manager Ruben (a pre-Cheers Nicholas Colasanto) and finds himself in the ring for a few underwhelming bouts.
Billy briefly takes up with a gregarious barfly (Susan Tyrell, Oscar-nominated for the role) while her husband Earl’s in the can. Earl’s belongings are all packed away in a box in the closet, which is where Billy’s stuff will be when Earl gets out. “It’s just how things are,” the ex-convict explains. Ernie ends up with a wife and son about as passively as he ends up with a career as a fighter — he’s the kind of guy life seems to happen to without him giving it much thought either way. Some days the men work as day laborers on onion farms or harvesting tree nuts, other days Billy day-drinks. The movie builds to a big, bruising match so sloppy and anti-climactic the winner needs to be told that he’s won.
Huston was a boxer himself back in his Hemingway-esque youth, which might account for the movie’s easy authenticity. (He retired in 1959 with a record of 20-7-1.) Real fighters like Sixto Rodriguez and Curtis Cokes fill out the supporting cast, and the film is full of grace notes such as the boxers in Colasanto’s stable all having to share the same pair of trunks, swapping them between bouts no matter how bloody they’ve become. (It’s also appallingly funny that he nicknames the non-Irish Ernie “Irish,” because white fighters bring in better box office and “this way people will know.”) Such touches feel like they’re from lived experience, and obviously Huston knew a thing or two about hangovers.
Fat City drifts in and out of the characters’ days with little in the way of momentum and would probably feel as purposeless as these people’s lives, were it not for Gardner’s novelistic details and Huston’s amiable eye. These run-down, single-room rentals and dingy dive bars are photographed by the legendary cinematographer Conrad Hall with an admirably unglossy appreciation for their ragged beauty. The soundtrack keeps returning to different arrangements of Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” and Huston’s entire aesthetic feels keyed to the unassuming poetry of Kristofferson’s bleary, whiskey-and-Marlboro vocals. The singer’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down” might also have made an appropriate theme song, but Fat City’s atmosphere of an eternal present is best summed up here in the lyrics: “Yesterday is dead and gone / and tomorrow’s out of sight.”
These people all talk past each other – most amusingly when Colasanto monologues about another new prospect who might make it to the big time while his wife, who has undoubtedly heard this a thousand times, politely falls asleep. The characters in Fat City don’t need to be understood, they just want to be heard. And besides, most of what everybody’s saying is all rationalizations and excuses anyway. (The film’s funniest scene finds Colosanto explaining to his boys how wonderfully they fought and that they would have won were it not for the crooked judges, while everybody looks on with faces pummeled into hamburger.)
There are so many ways this picture could have gone wrong. It’s easy to imagine awful, poverty-porn approaches in which these characters were romanticized or worse, pitied. But Huston regards them all with a characteristically steady gaze. Fat City is a film about life on the margins but it’s never doleful or depressing. “It’s just how things are.”
“Fat City” is streaming on Amazon Prime.