John Huston’s FAT CITY
In the town of Stockton California, Billy Tully (Stacy Keach) is an over the hill ex-boxer who lives alone in a dumpy little apartment and drinks too much. Since leaving the ring and getting divorced Tully has been working as a laborer on farms in the valley picking onions and other things to keep money coming in. One day while exercizing at the local gym he runs into a friendly young kid named Ernie Munger (Jeff Bridges). As they do some light sparring, Tully can see this kid has some potential and suggests that Ernie contact his former manager Ruben (Nicholas Colasanto) about training to be an amateur boxer. After pulling a muscle during the workout, a depressed Tully trods down to the local bar where he encounters Oma (Susan Tyrrell) a scratchy voiced barfly who’s in an interracial relationship with Earl (Curtis Cokes). Oma seems to always give Earl a hard time but he just sits quietly listening to her rant and rave.
Ernie follows through and meets Ruben who sets up some fights for him. The first bout goes rather bad and Ernie gets knocked out but he doesn’t give up and keeps training, improving with each match. Meanwhile his girlfriend Faye (Candy Clark) wants to get married but he’s not as keen on the idea and the two try to come to a decision as he chases his newfound career. After Earl is tossed back in jail, Tully and Oma move in together but what starts as a tender, loving relationship soon goes sour because of Oma’s drinking and bad temper. Inspired by Ernie and with some help from Ruben, Tully is able to return to boxing and wins his fight against a Mexican fighter named Lucero (Sixto Rodriguez) although the cash prize (a measly $100) and the success he enjoys don’t inspire him like he thought.
Based on the book by Leonard Gardner (who also wrote the screenplay) FAT CITY was John Huston’s return to critical success after he had made several flops. While the movie definitely isn’t a Rocky style boxing story (I saw it as a kind of Charles Bukowski meets John Steinbeck tale), its impact comes from the honest depictions of the characters. Stacy Keach’s Tully is one of his finest performances while Susan Tyrrell really stands out as Oma playing her as sad, funny and spiteful (she got a Best Supporting Actress nomination that year). Jeff Bridges’ Ernie really isn’t a complex or flashy guy but he plays him with an integrity that he brings to every role. The cinematography by Conrad Hall gives the film a wonderfully run down, sleazy look and evokes just the right kind of atmosphere for these ‘salt of the earth’ people to inhabit.