The Mysterious Greatness of 'Fat City'

What makes this 40-year-old boxing movie so affecting?

Columbia Pictures

It's been 40 years since the release of the wonderfully affecting film Fat City, about a couple of small-time boxers in Stockton, California. At least that is its ostensible subject, but it is really about the varieties of dead end lives in a dead-end town. The movie stars Stacy Keach as the battle- (and bottle-) scarred veteran and (a very young) Jeff Bridges as the novice and was directed by John Huston from a screenplay by Leonard Gardner from his novel. It's a terrifically engaging movie. There are moments that always repay reviewing: the look on Keach's face when Keach asks Bridges how he did when Bridges once saw him fight ("You lost"); Bridges being billed as "Irish Ernie Munger," protesting "I'm not Irish" and his manager saying "That's just so they know you're white" to pump up the gate; the manager—Nicholas Colasanto (later "Coach" on "Cheers")—in bed spinning out a dream (not for the first time, we can be sure) about how he can make Bridges a champion while his wife drifts off to sleep; the trash talking Muhammed Ali wannabee getting knocked out within seconds of getting into the ring; and the endless alibis offered up by the characters for their setbacks in and out of the ring.

I try to catch at least a part of Fat City whenever Turner Classic Movies shows it (which is pretty often—I am not one of those who complain about the er, somewhat repetitive nature of the TCM lineup). But when they aired it last week, it was a particularly timely showing.

For one thing, it aired a few days after actress Susan Tyrrell died (and a couple of days before the obituaries appeared in print). Tyrrel had been a nominee for a supporting actress Oscar for a wonderful performance as the barfly who is Keach's sometime love interest—the high water mark of a career that never seemed to develop the momentum that her performance (or nomination) warranted. It was a not-uncommon fate for an awards category that (before A-list stars started dropping down into the category in recent years as changes of pace from their leading role stints) often rewarded quirky and offbeat turns that did not readily translate into other roles.

The airing also coincided with the death of film critic Andrew Sarris, America's leading proponent of the auteur theory that singles out the director as the true creator of a film and the proper subject of film criticism and emphasizes the visual, not the literary, elements of a movie. (There are those who would say that this was because its French initiators, who particularly idolized low-budget American B-pictures , did not understand the dialogue). And although I admired and enjoyed Sarris's work, I was perplexed by how much space he frequently devoted to plot summaries—not cinematic style—in his reviews.

So what has that have to do with Fat City? Sarris was not a big fan of John Huston, relegating him—a few years before the appearance of Fat City—to the "Less Than Meets the Eye" category in his classification of American directors (well below the "Pantheon" and below even "Expressive Esoterica" and the "Far Side of Paradise"). In the 1940s, Huston had made The Maltese Falcon and Treasure of the Sierra Madre, two classics. Then a prolonged slump had set in, and it is hard to argue with Leonard Maltin who wrote that Fat City was Huston's best picture in two decades. Where did a film like Fat City come from? It's hard on this track record to credit its excellences to Huston's directorial style.

I would have to say that it is the script that made the difference here and that allowed Huston to make a better film than he had made in many years. Perhaps that is the major drawback to the auteur theory. It can help highlight a director's style—or choice of subject matter—but it won't tell you whether the film will be any good.

And finally, Stockton. From they city's bleak portrayal in the film, its hopelessness mirroring that of the film's characters, it did not seem possible that it could sink any lower. But appearances deceived. It could. On Thursday, the city of Stockton filed for bankruptcy.