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Few studio-era directors' careers survived the freewheeling 1970s, a time when successful filmmakers were more likely to be recent college graduates than weathered craftsmen. But John Huston made some exceptionally challenging films during the me-decade, and would continue to do so until the end of his life. Fat City (1972), which stars Stacy Keach and Jeff Bridges as a couple of down-and-out boxers, is one of the more uncompromising movies of the period. It isn't mentioned in the same breath as such Huston classics as The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) or The African Queen (1951), but this gritty little movie is definitely not the work of an obsolete director.
Fat City stars Stacy Keach as Billy Tully, an alcoholic boxer who's desperately trying for a small-time comeback in the sleepy-bordering-on-depressing town of Stockton, California. Tully's sidekick is Ernie Munger (Jeff Bridges), a naïve younger man who, quite unwisely, is also pursuing a career in the ring (his first, very brief bout, is a comic highlight of the film.) Billy and Ernie are joined in their pursuit of the tarnished brass ring by Oma (Susan Tyrrell), another barfly who sets up house with Billy. The narrative, as is the case with so many great films from the period -- think Badlands (1973) and Taxi Driver (1976) - is more concerned with how these variously fractured souls deal with their environment, rather than adhering to a strict three-act structure.
Huston knew a thing or two about the fight game- for a brief time during his youth, he was a semi-professional boxer in Los Angeles. He once claimed in an interview that he attended Lincoln Heights High School because of its superior boxing program, even though it was in a decidedly rough part of town. Reputedly three world champions (he doesn't name them, so who knows if it's true) eventually graduated from the school. "I remember there was a place (in the area) called Madison Square Gardens and it was on Central Avenue, which was a black community. They used to make up posters for the fights - make up weights. The fighters would go round the night of the fight and pick out names...If you had red hair, you'd be Red O'Reilly, something like that. I remember fighting there one night under two different names!" Huston even cast a few of his boxing buddies from the old days as supporting players in Fat City.
Both Keach and Bridges told writer Lawrence Grobel that what you're seeing during Fat City's fight scenes is often very real. Keach said that, after carefully staging a bout beforehand, Huston apparently had a change of heart and shouted, "All right boys, now we're just going to have two minutes of boxing. Just go out there and fight!" Keach was rightfully terrified. "Every time I hit this guy," he said, "he couldn't help it, his left hand would come out and he really got me good. That shot is in the film. There's nothing fake about it, when I go down to the mat, it's real!" Bridges simply got popped so many times, he started to bleed from a nasty cut on his head.
In the end, it was all worthwhile. Fat City received rave reviews across the board in most cases. The Los Angeles Times called it "one of (Huston's) best films in years, and one of the best he has ever done: a lean, compassionate, detailed, raucous, sad, strong look at some losers and survivors on the side streets of small-city Middle America." All of the actors received praise, and Tyrrell was even nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.
Huston, as much as anyone, was surprised when Fat City became a commercial success- he hadn't had a real hit in a while. "I believed very much in the film," he said, "but would have been happy if it was well received by a selective audience." He didn't feel the characters were too depressing to be popular, either. "Personally, I admire the down-and-outers depicted in the film, people who have the heroism to take it on the chin in life as well as in the ring."
Watch Fat City and marvel at an old filmmaking heavyweight as he enters the final rounds of his illustrious career with his killer instinct intact.
Producer: Ray Stark, John Huston
Director: John Huston
Screenplay: Leonard Gardner (based on his novel)
Cinematography: Conrad Hall
Editing: Margaret Booth
Music: Marvin Hamlisch
Production Design: Richard Sylbert
Special Effects: Paul Stewart
Set Design: Morris Hoffman
Costume Design: Dorothy Jeakins
Principle Cast: Stacy Keach (Billy Tully), Jeff Bridges (Ernie Munger), Susan Tyrrell (Oma), Candy Clark (Faye), Nicholas Colasanto (Ruben), Art Aragon (Babe), Curtis Cokes (Earl), Sixto Rodriguez (Lucero), Billy Walker (Wes), Wayne Mahan (Buford), Ruben Navarro (Fuentes)
by Paul Tatara