B Roll is a weekly column that digs into the deeper cuts and lesser-known films from legendary directors–the good, the bad, and the awesome. This week, writer Nathanael Hood looks at John Huston’s 1972 drama Fat City.
From the very first few shots of John Huston’s Fat City, nobody actually expects that its main characters will succeed: that washed-up, alcoholic boxer Billy Tully (Stacy Keach) will pull his life back together and reclaim his past glory; that lanky eighteen-year-old Ernie Munger (Jeff Bridges) will rise through the ranks to become boxing’s next superstar. Perhaps it’s the light; that muggy luminescence bleaching the color and soul from the people and environs of Skid Row. Or perhaps it’s the melancholy sound of Kris Kristofferson crooning “Help Me Make It Through the Night” as poor folk go about their poor folk lives in a poor folk city.
Then again, perhaps it’s just the ubiquitous specter of failure oozing from Huston’s very presence on set.
The late 60s and early 70s had been a trying time for Huston: his few commercial successes had been critically panned and his few critical successes had been largely ignored by the public. Small wonder he was drawn to Leonard Gardner’s 1969 novel Fat City. Here was a story where failure was pre-ordained. So Huston rolled up his sleeves, grabbed a camera, and dived head-first into Gardner’s unapologetic pessimism. And because the universe loves a good joke, what resulted was one of the finest films of his career.
Fat City is quite the oddity among boxing pictures: there are relatively few fight scenes. The handful that do make the final cut are short and almost deliberately non-engaging. One early fight with Munger is shot almost entirely from the outside of the ring looking in with the ropes obscuring the action like sideways prison bars. There are no traditional training montages: Munger’s development as a fighter and Tully’s re-emergence are almost exclusively communicated through mush-mouthed exposition dumps courtesy of their manager and trainer Ruben (Nicholas Colasanto). For a boxing film, the boxing is almost an after-thought.
Huston is much more interested in what Tully and Munger do while outside of the ring, the ways they either inadvertently or deliberately sabotage their lives and chances at success. In both cases, women who are effectively their doubles prove to be their downfall: sweet, ingenue Faye (Candy Clark) whose late-night back-seat rendezvous with Munger are just as short-sighted as his dreams of boxing success; loud, drunken, perpetually pouty-lipped Oma (Susan Tyrrell), the externalization of all of Tully’s fears of loneliness and failure. The moment we see Faye, we think her a blessing. The moment we see Oma, we know she’s trouble—she tearfully pronounces love for Tully during their second meeting at a bar.
And yet, in a truly devastating sequence Faye reveals herself to be the true black widow when she lures Munger into admitting that he would never walk out on a child before revealing that she’s pregnant.
All things reach the inevitable end of failure. Yet such failings were always one of Huston’s trademarks. Humphrey Bogart never found the true Maltese Falcon or the Treasure of the Sierra Madre, did he? The Asphalt Jungle swallowed Sam Jaffe & co. And Danny, the Man Who Would Be King, finally found his throne at the bottom of a gorge. Tully and Munger never reached Fat City, a term described by Gardner as “the good life.”
But as I stated at the beginning of this review, we never thought they had a snowball’s chance in hell anyway.