2016 TCM Classic Film Festival, TCL Chinese Theater
Moving (as in emotional) Pictures was the theme of this year’s TCM Classic Film Festival with sports movies as a sidebar. Appropriately, Fat City (1972) is a poignant look at the underside of professional boxing.
Directed by John Huston and adapted by Leonard Gardner from his own novel, the movie begins with a pre credit sequence of downtown Stockton, a perpetually struggling town in California’s Central Valley agricultural belt. The camera captures something of Gardner’s poetic description of “leafless trees between absolutely flat streets” and its denizens. Before meeting our hero, aging boxer Billy Tully (Stacy Keach), we get a look at his world of dive bars and flophouses and it isn’t pretty. Just at the point when moviegoing couples of 1972 must’ve bolted for the exits, Kris Kristofferson starts to croon “Help Me Make it Though the Night.” His voice is deep and reassuring, maybe telling folks to “sit back down. We do have some entertainment for you.” Yes, there are thrilling moments, but it’s a grim hundred minutes that feels like black-and-white even though it’s in color [cinematographer Conrad Hall used an overexposing technique that the studio hated].
Huston boxed in his youth and he’s always good at portraying a masculine universe. The casting is perfect, the leads augmented with people from the fight game. Light-heavyweight champion José Torres trained Keach for the ring. He also got tips from Robert Ryan [The Set-Up (1949)] on how to move his body like a boxer. Once filming of the climatic fight with Lucero (“Kid” Sixto Rodriguez) began, the director nixed the subtle choreography. As Keach told Eddie Muller, Huston let them “beat the hell out of each other.” Rodriguez gave the actor permission to punch him in the gut as hard as he could. “Just instinctively,” said Keach, “he knocked me cold.”
Tully is close to the end of an athlete’s handful of good years. He wants one last shot but trainer Ruben (Nicholas Colasanto) won’t give him one. It isn’t out of meanness. Ruben has a fondness for him but doesn’t want Tully to get his hopes up.The veteran trainer has his eye on Ernie (Jeff Bridges), a good-looking white kid who stands out among the gym’s black and brown youngsters and could be a draw.
Sheri Linden writes in Arts Meme:
But for all their authenticity, the fights aren’t the main show in Fat City. What makes it indelible is the loneliness, disappointment and perseverance pulsing through its every detail, and alive in every face that appears onscreen. It’s in the way the celebrated cinematographer Conrad Hall lights and frames each moment, from drunken laments to Lucero’s post-fight walk down a dark corridor; from scenes of toil in the onion fields under a blank sun to the doleful beauty of the final sequence between Keach and Bridges.
There’s a theme of fathers and sons that runs throughout. Tully and Ernie, the old pro and the young prospect, form a bond that comes with a dose of competitiveness. They’re shown living on parallel tracks. Ernie is still a magnet for young women and moves in with Faye (Candy Clark).Tully tries to stay sober but makes the fatal mistake of rekindling a destructive relationship with scratchy-voiced barfly, Oma, played with pathos and sad humor by Academy nominee Susan Tyrrell. Also outstanding in supporting roles are champion boxer Curtis Cokes as Oma’s boyfriend Earl and boxer/actor/bail bondsman Art Aragon.