Fat City (1972)
Written by Leonard Gardner
Directed by John Huston
After directing The Misfits, John Huston continued his work with Montgomery Clift in Freud: the Secret Passion. Huston was an avid supporter of psychotherapy, and the film is narrated by the director. It’s a somewhat Messianic portrayal of Freud as enlightening humanity. Huston would adapt the Tennessee Williams’ play Night of the Iguana in 1964, followed by The Bible: In the Beginning in 1966. That latter film produced by the legendary Dino de Laurentis was one of the last big overblown Biblical epics of the era. Huston appeared in the picture as Noah. These movies were not well received by critics & audiences, which was disappointing. Fat City would turn the tide as the director surveyed the changes happening in American cinema and adapted his style.
Set in Stockton, California, the titular Fat City, we meet Billy Tully (Stacey Keach). Billy was once a decent boxer, but he’s clearly past his prime. He meets 18-year-old Ernie Munger (Jeff Bridges) at the gym and sees potential in the youth. He recommends Ernie go to his old gym and ask to work under his old trainer Ruben. Ernie follows this advice and begins a burgeoning boxing career. His girlfriend Faye (Candy Clark) ends up pregnant, so Ernie decides to focus and become a better boxer to provide for his new family. Meanwhile, Billy crosses paths with Oma (Susan Tyrell), a lush with a boyfriend. Her guy ends up in jail, so Billy moves in. He quickly becomes disgusted by her behavior, and their personalities clash in larger & larger conflicts. These two men’s lives diverge in different ways, reflecting how destructive a person can be to themselves.
Huston has always been interested in men who were rough around the edges, underdogs & guys who just made perpetually bad decisions. Sam Spade may solve the case by the end of The Maltese Falcon, but his partner is dead. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is just a series of events that leads to a total loss by everyone involved. The Misfits focuses on a quartet of characters whose lives have led them to a place of loneliness and desperation. Thematically Fat City fits neatly into Huston’s body of work. Where it makes a unique place for itself is in the aesthetics of the picture. Fat City fits perfectly into the direction American films were going in the 1970s. This is thanks to cinematographer Conrad Hall who had just come off of working on Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid. There’s a naturalism to the film that moves away from Huston’s old Hollywood style in his previous movies.
The plot of Fat City is exceptionally loose and slice of life. There is no overarching conflict, just the stories of these two men and how their lives diverge. Stockton is one of the most essential elements in the picture, a portrait of economic decay. The city reflects many of the characters, especially Billy, who seems incapable of climbing out of the mire. There’s never really a reason that he ends up with Oma other than he is lonely. When we first meet him, he’s lying on his bed in the heat alone. He goes to the gym and strikes up a conversation with Billy. For the rest of the film, he drunkenly carouses bars and fights with Oma, whom he follows home.
There’s a brief moment where he looks like he might rekindle his boxing career, but we cut to months later, and he wanders the streets in clothes that are tattered. Our final moment with Billy is after he convinces Ernie to go get some coffee. Ernie humors the man, appreciative of the bit of guidance he was given but clearly seeing Billy as a walking tragedy. When the young man finishes his cup and tries to excuse himself, Billy looks at the other people gathered in the diner at tables, laughing and socializing. You can see the terror in, and Billy pleads for Ernie to stay and talk with him. Ernie submits, and they sit in silence, sipping their drinks.
Fat City works as a perfect companion piece to The Misfits, another look at people who live on society’s fringes. These are the people the system chewed up and spit out, who are never offered a helping hand, whose resentments grow. People like Billy are the end result of a world where bootstrap ideology is all we’re given. Some people need more help than they can provide themselves.