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Fat City

Fat City
Columbia TriStar
1972 / Color / 1:78 anamorphic 16:9 / 100 min. / Street Date December 10, 2002 / $19.95
Starring Stacy Keach, Jeff Bridges, Susan Tyrrell, Candy Clark, Nicholas Colasanto, Art Aragon, Curtis Cokes, Sixto Rodriguez
Cinematography Conrad L. Hall
Production Designer Richard Sylbert
Film Editor Walter Thompson
Original Music Kris Kristofferson
Written by Leonard Gardner from his novel
Produced by John Huston, Ray Stark
Directed by John Huston

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The great director John Huston had the independent spirit throughout his Hollywood career. It shows in The Misfits and ill-fated but fascinating productions like The Roots of Heaven; he was always heading in a direction away from Hollywood, and not just to ape those vaunted European directors. The Red Badge of Courage, in Lillian Ross's book Picture, looks as if it could have been a masterpiece that inverted MGM's skewed sense of quality showmanship, at least before Leo editrix Margaret Booth slashed 40 minutes from it, collapsing two battle scenes into one and gutting the thrust of the story.  1

Fat City shows Huston practically inventing the modern American Independent Film decades before it came to be. It's a character study, pure and simple, with no claims on great drama or timely relevance, beyond the personal plight of humans surviving on skid row. It's about personal dreams and ambitions, and what happens to them down in the 'lower economic depths.'


Down 'n out boxer Tully (Stacy Keach) is turning 30, and when he strikes up a friendship with promising newcomer Ernie (Jeff Bridges), he gives the ring another go himself. Living in sloppy rented rooms and supporting himself by joining the migrant farmworkers in the fields, Tully rekindles his relationship with his manager Ruben (Nicholas Colasanto), a sweetheart of a guy who really wants the best for his boys and takes excellent care of them. After some setbacks, Ernie finds his stride in the boxing game, interrupted only by his marriage to the pregnant Faye (Candy Clark); Tully takes a side route back to alcoholism with a feisty, whiny barfly named Oma (Susan Tyrell). Ruben gets him a 'big' fight with a Panamanian named Lucero (Sixto Rodriguez). But even if Tully wins, will it make a difference?

Grungy without being sickening, and squalid without being vulgar - hardly anybody swears in this lowlife epic - Fat City is an impressive portrait of nominal losers who try to achieve some mild success as boxers, while fighting off the nagging pangs of worthlessness. Tully and Ernie are both good guys, undereducated but agreeable types who drift into boxing with modest ambitions. Forget the dimestore sentiment of Rocky: this is the real underside story.

Drifting on skid row, Tully encourages Ernie to seriously take up the ring, and even though he's an out-of-shape loser, gives it another try himself. This gives us a good look at the show's brightest character, Nicholas Colasanto's Ruben, a basement-level fights manager who nurtures, props up, protects and defends his 'boys', often getting up in the middle of the night to look after their problems. For young Ernie, this means trying to keep him focused (away from the temptations of his girlfriend) and helping him through the indignities of the ring. In his first bout, Ernie is winning until the opposition head-butts him. The ref doesn't catch it: Ernie loses and gets a broken nose for his trouble. Although perhaps too soft-looking to be a real boxer, Jeff Bridges in this early role makes a very amiable, believable nice guy.

Tully isn't mired in self-loathing but he does have a serious attitude problem. His commitment to his fighting fluctuates, and he goes on benders between sincere efforts to keep training. He calls himself a bum, but cheerfully works like a slave with the field pickers to earn a few dollars to keep going. Scarred and dulled by his bouts, he doesn't appreciate his only real friend, Ruben. For all the glory he seeks, when Tully does get his minor victory, he doesn't even know he's won, and the film suggests that he may now be permanently addled - 'punchy'. They don't have enough good roles for actors like Stacy Keach, but every time he got one he hit a home run, as he does here.

Ernie and Tully court women appropriate to their status in the boxing life. Young Ernie's makeout date Faye plays her cards right and lands herself a husband with a very iffy future. Candy Clark is impressive in the role, which surely helped write her ticket for the next year's American Graffiti. Tully gets his woman on the rebound, almost literally a loan-out while her steady is in prison. On this level of relationship neither male can affort to invest his ego; both know they're expendable.

Susan Tyrell attracted almost as much attention as the male stars in this picture - she's truly unique among screen barflies, and probably convinced everyone back in '72 that she was the real thing. With really lousy hair and a flushed, shiny face, Tyrell talks in this thin but raspy voice that sounds painful - it varies between 2 or 3 different, grating whines. Found abandoned in a bar, she attracts interest well enough, but the few glimpses we see of their domestic arrangement aren't much of a testimonial to her - she becomes argumentative without provocation, even when sharing a simple meal. Poor Tully eventually finds his clothes handed to him in a box - just like the last guy.

With a topnotch studio roster of creative talent,  2 Huston crafts a simple & direct tale that will impress film fans and move those ordinary viewers willing to invest in characters for whom self-respect is an elusive luxury. Helping out is a well-chosen score of Kris Kristofferson folk songs. The cheap bars, boxing arenas, and especially the backbreaking farmworking life, are convincingly authentic.

Columbia TriStar's DVD of Fat City has a very handsome hi-def transfer from elements in perfect condition. There are both enhanced widescreen and flat fullscreen transfers, and the only extra is a trailer.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Fat City rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 20, 2002


1. Including destroying the reportedly Oscar-caliber performance of Royal Dano. In the original lost cut, he dies horribly on the battlefield. Anthony Mann let Dano reprise the scene, sort of, in his later Man of the West.

2. Including, interestingly, Margaret Booth as his supervising editor - apparently Huston held no grudge, or realized it was a meddling Louis B. Mayer who had deep-sixed The Red Badge of Courage.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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