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Boxing Movie Review: Stacy Keach fights himself and a hopeless life in ‘Fat City’

The Boxing Movie Review series continues with the John Huston-directed Fat City from 1972.

Columbia Pictures
Scott Christ is the managing editor of Bad Left Hook and has been covering boxing for SB Nation since 2006.

As you’re well aware by now, the boxing world is on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic across the world, and we at Bad Left Hook are looking for various ways to keep the show going without any actual fights to cover at the moment. So we’ll be watching some boxing movies and discussing them.

Last time out, we did the 1956 film The Harder They Fall, starring Humphrey Bogart in his final film role. Today, another one I’ve never gotten around to watching, this one despite many recommendations over the years: 1972’s Fat City, directed by John Huston. (As for why I’ve never gotten around to it, this wasn’t exactly sitting prominently on the rental shelves when I was a kid, it wasn’t running on TV back then either, and as I mentioned before, over the last 15 years my taste for watching movies about the thing I spend all day talking about has lessened, even with movies being one of my bigger hobbies otherwise. But extraordinary times, etc.)

And again, I’m no film critic. I’ll do my best with a review and all that, but mostly this is for the discussion.

The movie is available for rental and purchase through Amazon Prime.

Note: There are spoilers for plot points and whatnot in the review. I mean, this is a 48-year-old movie, but I know people still manage to get upset about that on the internet. If you want to avoid all spoilers but still get quick thoughts, you can skip down to the bottom for the rating and the paragraph that accompanies it. Otherwise you might be better off watching the movie and then coming back to read the review. Plus then you can discuss it with us!

Fat City (1972)

100 minutes. Directed by John Huston. Screenplay by Leonard Gardner, based on a novel by Gardner. Starring Stacy Keach, Jeff Bridges, Susan Tyrrell, Candy Clark, and Nicholas Colasanto.

I was pretty sure I was going to enjoy Fat City once we got an opening of washed-out boxer Billy Tully (Stacy Keach) waking up trying to shake off a hangover while Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through the Night” played.

Right after we see Billy get up and head to a gym, we are introduced to 18-year-old Ernie Munger (a young Jeff Bridges), who works out on the speed bag at the YMCA, and doesn’t seem to show show much talent for it. Billy asks if he wants to spar, having not fought in a year, while Munger has never actually been in a ring. Billy quickly pulls a muscle and has to give it up; again, young Ernie doesn’t seem to show much actual ability, but Billy tells him he has potential (his long reach is something that gets every boxing person interested in him) and to head to a local boxing gym to meet his former manager.

Ernie does that, meeting Ruben (Nicholas Colasanto), who works the kid out just a little bit. Yet again, it doesn’t seem Ernie has any natural talent, but we see Ruben that night as his wife tries to fall asleep, rambling about the 175-pound kid he met, who he claims is a natural athlete. While assuring his wife that he’s not racist, he still figures there are too many “colored” fighters in the sport these days. “Anglos don’t wanna pay to see two colored guys fight, they wanna see a white guy fight,” he reckons, and he sees star potential in the handsome young kid. “If he put on some weight, he could turn into a good-lookin’ white heavyweight. He could draw crowds someday if he’d learn how to fight.”

On the other side of the story, a drunken Billy sits in a tavern and sparks up a conversation with Oma (Susan Tyrrell, who was nominated for an Oscar for this role) and her boyfriend, Earl (Curtis Cokes, who isn’t playing a fighter here but just a few years prior was the world welterweight champion, and was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2003). Oma and Earl have a contentious relationship, which the alcoholic Oma seems intent on pressing.

Old Ruben turns a set of young fighters pro alongside Ernie, including a 15-year-old Golden Gloves champion whose age is being lied about. Ernie’s debut doesn’t go well, as he has his nose broken and is stopped by TKO. Backstage, when his trunks are passed to another fighter set to go out, that hopeful objects to the blood Ernie has left on them. “Don’t worry about it, it’s not your blood,” Ruben tells him. All the kids lose, then sit around a bar table, battered, with Ruben and his assistant Babe doing their best to convince the lot that they were all given the shaft. (Babe is played by Art Aragon, who challenged for the world lightweight title in 1951 and was romantically linked to many starlets during his fighting days, including Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield. He was also suspected of fixing fights, and was convicted of such in California in 1957.)

Billy and Oma get together after a rousing bar conversation in the afternoon, both of them drunk and Earl now in jail for assault. Oma denies that Earl could ever hurt anyone, while also saying he raped her after their last meeting with Billy. They get into their ex-spouses, they devolve into an argument, and they walk out together, with Oma telling Billy she loves him, having moments earlier decided that Billy was “the only son of a bitch worth a shit in this place.”

Ernie, meanwhile, is getting fitted for a flashy new entrance robe with Ruben, who is lying about the young fighter’s credentials to anyone who will ask. In his second fight, robe and all, Ernie is immediately knocked out after the bell sounds and the action gets underway. There’s a great shot where we see Ruben passing the robe down to Babe at ringside, the bell sounds, we hear the crowd reacting, and when our attention and Ruben’s are back on the fight, Ernie is already being hopelessly overwhelmed by his opponent.

Ernie’s girlfriend Faye (Candy Clark) manipulates Ernie into marrying her, more or less, by suspecting there’s a baby on the way and talking in circles until he gets around to proving he’s a good man by proposing marriage instead of abandoning her “now that the mystery is gone.” Unable to find any real work and living with Oma, Billy decides he’ll start fighting again. He and Ernie meet up working as day laborers, familiar to Billy but new to Ernie. The old warhorse tells Ernie to take care of his new wife, but mostly talks to (or at) the younger man about his plans to return to boxing.

When Ruben meets up with a local promoter at a bowling alley to try and get Billy a comeback fight, the promoter repeatedly says Billy can’t draw, unless he fights a guy named Lucero. Ruben eventually agrees to this, though he’d meant to get Billy a tune-up comeback fight. Ruben tells himself he believes Billy can win this fight, but then we’ve already seen Ruben trying to convince himself Ernie, who can’t fight at all, has potential.

Billy and Oma argue at home, partially over Earl having been by to retrieve his clothes. Preparing to fight again, Billy is driven to drink, calls Ruben up, and gets a place to sleep, while Ruben convinces him to leave Oma. “You know somethin’, Rube?” Billy asks. “In four days, I’m gonna be 30.” He looks and feels far north of that age, and while that’s somewhat down to Keach, who was only 30 when the movie was being filmed, losing his hair early and having the maturity of an older actor, it feels as though we’re supposed to be surprised by Tully’s youth.

Columbia Pictures

We don’t meet Billy’s aforementioned upcoming opponent, Lucero, in the ring. Instead, we see him arrive in town alone, reporting to a small hotel room. We also see him in that room, clearly in pain and urinating blood. He’s still in significant pain when we see him backstage ready to fight. His cornermen tell the promoter that everything’s fine, and that he’s seen the doctor already, who proclaimed the fighter to be “in good shape.”

The Lucero-Tully fight scene is well-done, the sort of fight scene I like best. This isn’t what real boxing looks like, of course, but it’s not quite the utter superhero absurdity of Rocky fight scenes, either. Keach is no pro fighter, but you see the obvious difference between Billy’s skills and Ernie’s earlier on. Even when he’s in trouble, Billy has the heart and resolve and skills to survive, which greenhorn Ernie did not. (Lucero is played by Sixto Rodriguez, who was a pro fighter from 1956-64.)

Billy and Ruben wind up at odds at payoff time, old wounds (literal and metaphorical) festering from Billy’s side in particular. When he goes back to see Oma, he’s greeted by Earl. Back to his old life, he runs into Ernie again, who’s just coming back from a win in Reno and is now a father. Drunk, Billy offers to have Ernie join him for a drink, which is declined. But the two have a cup of coffee, Billy once again considering a return to the ring.

Rating: 4.5/5. The movie is not your average boxing or sports film, with the focus almost entirely outside the confines of the ring, the neo-noir drama rich and very human. Keach is terrific as a rapidly aging drunk who really might still have something left in the ring, but can’t get out of his own way long or consistently enough for that to matter. Young Bridges doesn’t get a lot to do, but what he has he pulls off fine, and Colasanto is sharp and believable as a small-time manager/trainer. Tyrrell got an Oscar nomination for her off-kilter performance (and it is very much a Performance) as Oma. The film is bleak in the way many of the best films of the 1970s were, its setting in Stockton, California, as hopeless as any of the characters. It was a comeback of sorts for director Huston, who had endured a string of flops, but it’s really the script from Leonard Gardner, who also wrote the novel of the same name, combined with the understated desperation of Keach that makes this film as great as it is.

BLH Boxing Movie Rankings, as of now:

  1. Fat City (1972) 4.5
  2. The Harder They Fall (1956) 3.5

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