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Fat City (1972)

May 9th, 2008 · 3 Comments

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In Stockton, California, Billy Tully (Stacy Keach) wakes up in a fleabag hotel next to a fight magazine and a pint of whiskey. With nothing else to do, he grabs a gym bag and heads to the YMCA, where 18-year-old Ernie Munger (Jeff Bridges) wails on a punching bag. Tully asks the kid if he wants to spar. Ernie inquires whether Tully’s a pro. “I used to be. I’m all out of shape now.” Despite claiming he’s never been in a boxing ring, the kid impresses Tully with his speed and his legs.

After pulling a muscle, Tully plants himself on a barstool. He meets a devil-tongued lush named Oma (Susan Tyrrell) who’s even more soused than he is. Meanwhile, Ernie follows Tully’s advice and goes to see his former manager Ruben Luna (Nicholas Colasanto). Ruben mentions that Tully was once his best fighter, until he got married to a woman who ruined the boxer’s peace of mind. Ernie’s potential – plus his clean cut looks and the fact that he’s White – convinces Ruben that the kid could be a great heavyweight draw.

While trying to keep his teenage girlfriend Faye (Candy Clark) happy, Ernie trains for his first fight. Tully makes ends meet by picking melons at twenty cents a sack. Ruben piles Ernie and three other fighters (“Four sure winners!”) in his Chevy and drives to Monterey for a series of three-rounders. All four kids lose. When Tully runs into Oma at the bar again, she informs him that her loyal boyfriend has been sent to jail. Getting drunk with her, Tully promises, “You can count on me.” They quickly move in together.


When Ernie gets Faye pregnant, he hangs up his boxing gloves and finds work in a walnut orchard. He crosses paths with Tully and the men decide they could do a lot better by climbing back in the ring. Tully makes it as far as a professional fight this time, which he narrowly wins against a Panamanian suffering from gastrointestinitis. But Tully still holds a grudge against Ruben for mismanaging his shot at a belt when he was in his prime, and soon, the lure of the bottle proves too great.

Production history
Leonard Gardner was born and raised in Stockton, where he’d toiled as both a boxer and a field laborer before graduating from the creative writing program at San Francisco State College. His first novel wove the tale of a hungry young fighter with the woes of an old pro long past his glory days. Published in 1969, Fat City was nominated for a National Book Award alongside Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. The novel’s success sparked a bidding war in Hollywood, with film rights ultimately going to producer Ray Stark.

Monte Hellman was hired to direct Gardner’s screenplay adaptation. After spending weeks scouting locations and conducting research, Hellman opted for a deal with Cinema Center that promised him more money. 64-year-old John Huston – whose directing career had been, at best, checkered for twenty years – came on board. Asking cinematographer Conrad Hall and production designer Richard Sylbert if they understood what the film was about, Huston informed them, “It’s about your life running down the sink without being able to put the plug in to stop it.”


Hall took up the challenge by lighting scenes as they would be lit in real life, with low visibility inside the bars and the outside world blown out when you emerged into the sun. Ray Stark wanted Hall fired for making the film too dark to play at drive-ins, but Huston stood by his DP. The producer had already vetoed Huston’s choice to play Tully – Marlon Brando – but Stacy Keach’s performance ended up being second only to Brando’s in The Godfather for many critics in 1972. Strong reviews didn’t help the film at the box office, where audiences ignored it.

Fat City has grown in esteem among film noir enthusiasts, sports fans, and lovers of ‘70s movies, but what makes this a minor masterpiece is how beautifully it moves between despair and levity, with a rhythm that honors real life as opposed to melodrama. The script crawls right into the gutter with a man throwing his life away with booze and bad decisions, yet Gardner also demonstrates a genuine spirit for humanity in the rhythm of his dialogue and the vibrant stories his characters share with each other.

The film is rich in character, from the great Nicholas Colasanto (“Coach” on the early seasons of Cheers) as the effusive boxing manager, to Susan Tyrrell, who was nominated for an Academy Award as the loud and lonely barfly. Stacy Keach immortalizes one of the great screen drunks of all time, delivering the strongest performance of his career. The film’s Sunday morning coming down flavor is crowned by the use of Kris Kristofferson’s superlative western tune “Help Me Make It Through the Night” over the opening credits.


Vince Leo at QWipster’s Movie Reviews writes, “Subtle yet rich in so many ways, Fat City is one of the best films to cover the sport of boxing, giving us more of a glimpse into what drives these men to get in the ring and lay everything on the line. Definitely worth a look for those who enjoy the work of Keach and Huston; it resonates in its bleak and pessimistic portrayal of squandered lives and broken dreams.”

“While all this may seem too down and out to be entertaining, it’s a credit to Huston’s long perfected directing and narrative style that the film ends up saying something positive, even as it wallows in the seemingly miserable lives of these characters … we understand that we are in the hands of a brilliant, classic filmmaker. Huston explores the landscape, both inner and outer, in Fat City and creates a spellbinding, exceptional motion picture, and a near timeless classic,” writes Bill Gibron at DVD Verdict.

Glenn Erickson at DVD Savant writes, “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.’”

Stacy Keach, skid row and a classic Kris Kristofferson tune. See what a perfect opening credits sequence looks like in Fat City.

© Joe Valdez

Tags: Ambiguous ending · Drunk scene · Master and pupil · Sports

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 christian // May 10, 2008 at 5:35 pm

    I still haven’t seen this. A black mark on my record.

    And it’s interesting that Stacy Keach was being set up to be a Big Star, which never happened.

  • 2 Joe Valdez // May 10, 2008 at 8:35 pm

    Christian: I’d been meaning to see Fat City since I was in college circa 1992 and never did, in spite of its omnipresence in a lot of textbooks. Back then, it wasn’t available on VHS in any format that I knew of. Obviously, I highly recommend checking it out on DVD. This film is quite a beautiful, unseen gem.

  • 3 Tony Ballejos // Jun 21, 2008 at 12:10 pm

    As an ex- boxer, (I still train and spar sometimes) and former Fabela Chavez Boxing Center (in Carson, CA) competitor, as well as a professional writer / director (UCLA extension film program) and award winning filmmaker, I had a special interest in Fat City. I always wanted to write my neighborhood version of the dual, dark tragic-drama of one of our own two fallen idols; Mando Ramos featherweight child prodigy and 60’s world champ for a minute at 19—straight out of Long Beach, now clean, a former wino and substance abuser for many years, or Raul Ramos, out of San Pedro, contemporary and stable mate of Ramos and almost as gifted, featherweight champ for about 30 seconds. Both wasted there considerable talents away in the dive bars and drug dens in and around the Harbor and Long Beach areas of So Cal. My own real or envisioned images of a haunted Ramos in a darkened downtown Wilmington bar hunched over a scotch and soda lamenting of the glory days of fame and fortune, now, only 23 years old—a young man in any other profession, beaten broken and finished.

    John Houston’s adaptation of Stockton’s own Leonard Gardner’s first and only novel of the same name captures some of that cinema verite that makes guys like me salivate. Three years before Rocky and 16 years before Barfly, Huston, not surprisingly, shows great Indy foresight and a gritty realism that must be commended—if not applauded. However, I found the dysfunctional, gin soaked drama between Oma and Tully tiresome and overused way beyond the provocation of audience sympathy and engagement. What worked so well in the novel simply grew trite on screen. Moreover, Davidson (Rocky) and Scorsese (Raging Bull) showed us just a few years later what you can do with low budget boxing sequences, if you possess a little innovation. Drabby, gritty real depictions of Hemingway-esq losers are usually great in all mediums, but this is cinema, how about at least one heroic act? If I want to get depressed I’ll just visit my accountant.

    As much integrity as this film has, and as much praise as all the chic critics heaped on it to be a part of the fashionable band wagon, the public new, and as Woody Allen said, “The public is never wrong.” The film, with all its brave foresight and admirable raw qualities, was a drag, without even the slightest semblance of a heart rejoicing or triumphant moment, just a forlorn, sweet and tragic—albeit appealing tale. I enjoyed it enough, studied it and again, even admired it, but the one thing filmmakers (even the great John Huston) sometimes forget, film ultimately must be entertaining, that should be a filmmaker’s primary objective, to entertain, not solely to self satisfy by emulation of the under-belly of life in stunning semblance. Gloomy is well and good, but bring me back around at least once.

    Tony Ballejos
    Redondo Beach, CA

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