Real lives are often shabby, dimly lit and lonely, but they can still have dreams and still be the stuff of rich storytelling. Director John Huston and producer Ray Stark recognized and realized that faithfully and artistically in their film adaptation of Leonard Gardner’s 1969 novel Fat City (1972), which opened 45 years ago today. Gardner himself penned the screenplay for what Huston saw, biographer Lawrence Grobel wrote in his 1989 study of The Hustons, “as a picture ‘about hope and failure, great misery alongside great wealth.’” There were common threads in the lives of Huston and Gardner, as writer Jeffrey Meyers noted in his 2011 John Huston: Courage and Art: “Like Huston, Gardner…had had a sickly childhood and been confined to bed for a year. Also like Huston, he’d compensated for his invalidism by becoming an amateur boxer and had fought seven matches as a 145-pound welterweight. Huston loved getting back into the boxing world in Stockton, California, where the film was shot. He and Gardner acted as corner men in a real fight, busily sponging and rubbing down their boxer,” all part of an effort to capture, in Grobel’s words, “the look, the feel of those dank, depressed towns to which fighters traveled in order to beat their brains out in front of drunken, boisterous crowds.” Meyers outlines: “The title Fat City – particularly ironic in working-class, down-and-out Stockton – means not only being ‘out of condition,’ but also having the ‘hopeless dreams’ of a loser who’s beaten before he even starts. The story counterpoints two boxers: Billy Tully, an alcoholic has-been, and Ernie Munger, a talented young man at the beginning of his career. Huston wrote that the next stop for Tully (played by Stacy Keach) is ‘Skid Row, and his younger counterpart [Jeff Bridges’ Munger] is headed in the same direction despite the living lesson before his eyes.’ After Munger gets knocked out, his girlfriend [Candy Clark as Faye] gets knocked up – and he has to marry her. Munger doesn’t want the wife he has; Tully, stuck for a time with the drunken and sluttish Oma [Best Supporting Actress Oscar® nominee Susan Tyrell], longs for the wife who’s sensed his spiritual defeat and left him.”
Giving talented, fully invested players room to breathe and anointing their soiled characters with unexpected soulfulness and dignity, Fat City still stands, in David Thomson’s estimation from Have You Seen…?: A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films, as “probably the most honest boxing picture ever made, with lovely shabby color photography (by Conrad Hall) that looks like paper used to wrap a burger. Huston had several real fights around to help (Jose Torres, Curtis Cokes, Sixto Rodriguez) and he liked to put his actors in the ring with the pros sometimes so that we’d feel we’d seen the real thing.” It also endures as a movie to hypnotically lose oneself inside as the lives on screen, like our own, make the best of their circumstances. Meyers concludes: “Fat City shows compassion for both winners and losers, and relates the boxers’ fights to the [nearby migrant] farmworkers’ struggle to survive. The vivid details and realistic dialogue of Huston’s quietly moving film portray deadbeat characters and drifting alcoholics who fall through the cracks of society. The style, mood and theme are remarkably close to those of Hemingway’s story A Clean, Well-Lighted Place, in which the older waiter, sympathizing with the despair of the old patron, observes: ‘I am of those who like to stay late at the café….With all those who do not want to go to bed. With all those who need a light for the night.’” And despite the fact that during the filming, Huston had to begin coping with the emphysema that would restrict him for the rest of his 16 remaining years by having an oxygen tank at the ready, “Nothing, even in his best films, prepared the public for Fat City,” David Shipman assessed in The Story of Cinema, “as freshly observed as if made by a newcomer.” With an absorbing Audio Commentary by historians Lem Dobbs, Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman, Twilight Time’s splendid hi-def Blu-ray, derived from Sony’s recent meticulous 4K restoration, can be found here to help you make it through the night: http://screenarchives.com/title_detail.cfm/ID/29699/FAT-CITY-1972/.