No genre epitomizes the anything-goes spirit of the best American ’70s movies more than the downbeat character study, because during the ’70s, actors resembling real people were given opportunities to play characters resembling real people. Nothing could be further from traditional Hollywood glamour, for instance, than Fat City, the exceptional drama that revived director John Huston’s career. An ensemble piece set in the agricultural fields and skid-row neighborhoods in and around Stockton, California, Fat City is filled with dreamers, drunks, and losers. It’s a hymn to the hopeless. Whereas Huston had in the immediately preceding years lost his way by making bloated and/or misguided projects including The Bible: In the Beginning (1966) and Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967), the director used Fat City to return to his core strength of poetic narratives about people living on the fringes of society.
Although he didn’t write the piece (Leonard Gardner adapted the script from his own novel), Fat City concerns themes that were deeply familiar to Huston, including alienation, boxing, drinking, and failure. So even if one doesn’t get the sense of the director seeing himself in the film’s characters, one intuits that he’s known the type of people whose sad exploits he puts onscreen. Working with a skillful crew including master cinematographer Conrad Hall, Huston generates utterly believable atmosphere, with every dirty location and every tattered piece of costuming accentuating the theme of people whose lives comprise hard-won dignity against a backdrop of desperation.
Stacy Keach stars as Billy Tully, a washed-up boxer who decides to get himself together by going to a gym, where he meets promising young fighter Ernie Munger (Jeff Bridges). Emboldened by the idea of mentoring a beginner while restarting his own career, Billy initiates a pathetic quasi-romance with a drunk named Oma (Susan Tyrell). As the story progresses, Billy waffles between his real life, which involves arduous work picking fruit for meager pay, and his imagined life, which involves optimistic notions about a future with a surrogate family including Ernie and Oma. Fat City is primarily concerned with the ways in which people who have nothing latch onto possibilities. Similarly to how Billy entertains foolish notions of being a better fighter in middle age than he ever was as a youth, Ernie buys into Billy’s encouragement, and Oma pretends that what she has with Billy is genuine—even though she’s already involved with another man. Yet Gardner’s story doesn’t oversimplify these desolate characters by focusing myopically on their inability to improve their situations; quite to the contrary, Gardner illustrates every self-destructive tendency of these characters, such as Billy’s habit of blaming his circumstances on bad management. Every person in Fat City seems achingly real.
Huston cast the picture beautifully, getting letter-perfect work out of nearly everyone in the film. Keach’s unique combination of a bruiser’s physicality and a romantic’s soul transforms the actor into Billy; within his first few scenes, Keach erases any audience knowledge of his aptitude for classical dialogue, creating the complete illusion of a broken-down slob living on the streets of Stockton. Tyrell gives an equally powerful performance (for which she earned an Oscar nomination), her raspy voice and wild eyes conveying a woman lost to alcohol but not robbed of her humanity, while Bridges and costar Candy Clark provide youthful counterpoints to the main characters. (It’s not hard to imagine the people played by Bridges and Clark becoming like Billy and Oma later in life.) As for Huston, his artistic rejuvenation continued—although he made a few turkeys in the years after Fat City, he also made some of his most interesting pictures, including the challenging chamber pieces Wise Blood (1979), Under the Volcano (1984), and The Dead (1987), all of which are thematic cousins to Fat City.
Fat City: RIGHT ON