Fat City at 50: John Huston's Ode to the Down-and-Outers

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<i>Fat City</i> at 50: John Huston's Ode to the Down-and-Outers

“When you say you want to go to Fat City, it means you want the good life…The title is ironic: Fat City is a crazy goal no one is ever going to reach,” Leonard Gardner said of his first novel in 1969. He’d soon adapt it into the screenplay for a film directed by John Huston. Look up any plot synopsis or logline for Huston’s 1972 Fat City and you’ll be pitched a Stockton, California-set rise and fall narrative about one boxer at the end of his career and the other at the start of his, who will eventually come to blows in some presumably stunning finale showdown.

This couldn’t be further from the truth of the story Gardner and Huston are here to tell. Fat City is about boxers as much as Citizen Kane is about selling newspapers. Opening and closing with the woesome tones of Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” it’s about our need for companionship in the face of life’s ongoing adversities.

For Billy Tully (Stacy Keach) and Ernie Munger (Jeff Bridges), stepping into the ring doesn’t come with promises of glory and making it to the big leagues. Sure, that’d be nice, but they’re here to earn a few bucks to pay the bills—to keep the lights on in Billy’s dingy, ramshackle one bedroom where you imagine a cockroach screaming past if you dare pick up the week-old newspaper crumbled up into a ball on top of the plate of old food in the corner. Hoping to get back into shape, Billy runs into Ernie at the gym in the film’s opening scene, seeing in him something he likely once saw in himself: A contender.

Fat City isn’t about a rivalry that forms between these two men. It’s about a bond that builds between two worn-out losers just trying to get by. Billy is about to hit 30, looks like he’s passing 40 and hasn’t had a fight in a year and a half. Ernie is a fresh-faced 18 and never had a fight in his life. Billy knows he’s well past his prime. When the two begin to spar in that first scene, he almost immediately pulls a muscle and has to stop. But he gives Ernie the details for his old manager Ruben (Nicholas Colasanto) and tells him that he could make it if he wants to give it a chance. Ernie follows the advice and starts booking some fights, but from the jump we know this isn’t going to be Rocky. Hell, this isn’t even going to be Cinderella Man.

Ernie loses his first fight pretty quickly and is brought back into the locker room where Ruben has all his other fighters on the card that night. You can smell the sweat permeating the wet air. As Ernie’s recovering from the bout, his team takes his shorts off and tosses them to another boxer to put on. “They’re all bloody,” the other fighter complains as he begrudgingly puts them on. This is Fat City’s boxing world, one far from the flash and pizzazz Hollywood loves to embrace in the arena of sport. The fights are scrappy, rough around the edges, with men striving simply for another day, not for fame and glory.

That mentality is reflected in how Huston and the great cinematographer Conrad Hall stage the fights. There’s no adrenaline-pumping music getting us up on our feet, no fast-whirling cameras to give us the thrill of being in the ring. Hall brings the camera up close with the actors, peeling the sweat off their bodies as they get knocked out in the first round; the kind of anticlimax these guys are used to. They’ve faced it all their lives.

A well-known figure in Hollywood at this point in his illustrious career, there wasn’t a better choice to direct Fat City than Huston, as odd as it may seem on the surface. A mammoth success in his early days with films like The Maltese Falcon (somehow a directing debut), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The African Queen, Huston was on a brutal downswing of flops by the time Fat City hit his desk, coming off titles like Reflections in a Golden Eye and A Walk with Love and Death. He understood the trials and tribulations of someone who had the fame that’s not even in these men’s reach, and seeing that bloom fall off the rose, trying to pick it back up out of the dirt.

Perhaps more importantly, Huston had a former career as an amateur boxer. Retiring in 1959, the director understood this world better than most—understood it as adeptly as he did the mentality of burnouts and losers so frequently depicted in his films, never better than here in Fat City. “Personally, I admire the down-and-outers depicted in the film,” Huston said of the picture, “people who have the heroism to take it on the chin in life as well as in the ring.”

As quick as Ernie gets into the sporting world, he’s out of it: He knocks up girlfriend Faye (Candy Clark) and has to get more steady pay. He joins Billy, who quickly gave up on that whole “getting back into shape” thing, as the two fight for spots chopping weeds and picking walnuts in the fields. The jobs are the same to them as if they were in the ring. Just a blue collar way to eke out a meager living. Occasionally they’ll pick up a fight for a quick couple of bills, but it’s no different than the field work at this point. That glory, they know it’s never going to come.

One drunken afternoon at a bar, Billy strikes up a fancy with Oma (an Oscar-nominated Susan Tyrell), who is well past in the tank and the perfect match for Billy’s “down the barrel of oblivion” state of being. The two bond over their sufferings and failed marriages, alternating between sharing their pain and lashing out at each other, threatening violence against one another and themselves. A moment after a violent provocation, Oma says to Billy, “You’re the only son of a bitch worth shit in this place.” Portraying a woman repeatedly abused by domineering, condescending partners, the tragedy of Tyrell’s personal experience on Fat City, revealed decades after the film’s release, makes her performance even more chilling.

Susan Tyrell went on record in 2000 detailing her time with Huston, which involved adoration and power dynamics that led to sexual abuse:

“I still hate him, because what he took from me was huge. I totally believed in that world. I wanted to be an actress, and after that it was all over. I never wanted to act again. He stole something sacred from me. He’s the seed for all my behavior. And also the guilt, because I felt huge guilt that I didn’t run out of there. Titanic guilt, for laying down with him. But that’s how stupid I was. How naive. And I never got over it.”

She continued working in films like Flesh + Blood and Cry-Baby until her death in 2012, but it’s undeniable that her career never again hit the high marks of Fat City’s performance and recognition.

The sad relationship between Billy and Oma captures the core essence of Fat City: A desperate cry to connect with another person. Oma is down in the dumps after the incarceration of her boyfriend Earl (Curtis Cokes, a real-life boxer interestingly cast as someone not a boxer here), simply looking for a warm body to have and hold, to not be alone. Billy is clinging to any reason to keep going. Inside their apartment, buried in the closet, is a box full of Earl’s belongings—the constant reminder that this isn’t a fairy tale of two lovebirds set for the stars. When Earl gets out and comes back home to Oma, Billy is greeted with a sad little box of his own and a reminder that this salvation, or distraction, was merely temporary.

Fat City’s final scene sees Billy and Ernie reunited, sitting down at a diner for a moment together. Looking up at a worker there, Billy says, “Aren’t you glad we’re not him? What a waste that would be.” Pushing back, Ernie suggests maybe this man is happy living his life, to which Billy replies, “Maybe we’re all happy.” There’s a cold, hollowed-out cynicism to Billy, a man who has been beaten up over and over again. Yet Ernie retains his optimism, his kindness and warm spirit. Billy looks around the place and sees people together, guys playing cards, little pockets of community and conversation. As Ernie says he’s going to head out, Billy quickly asks him to hang around a little while longer. Ernie agrees to stay, and the two sit there, sipping their coffee and not saying anything. Sometimes it’s better to just have someone next to you than nothing at all. Wanting the good life might be unattainable, but maybe, just maybe, we don’t have to go through it all alone.


Currently based in Newark, Delaware, Mitchell Beaupre is the Senior Editor at Letterboxd, and a freelance film journalist for sites including The Film Stage, Paste Magazine, and Little White Lies. With every new movie they watch, they’re adding five more to their never-ending Letterboxd watchlist. You can find them on Twitter at @itismitchell.