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April 2, 2016

Movie Review: Fat City (1972, Blu-ray)

Directed by John Houston

Movie Review by Greg Goodsell

In dusty, dreary Stockton, California – a blue collar 'burg where the main activity is trying to find a way out, Billy (Stacy Keach) is a former boxer, 30 years old and going on 50. Reigniting his passion to return to the ring, he meets up with a fresh-faced teen boxer Ernie (Jeff Bridges) while training . Becoming fast friends, things are looking up for awhile. Bridges marries his sweet-faced girlfriend Faye (Candy Clarke) and starts his family, while Keach falls in love with the blowsy alcoholic barfly Oma (the incredible Susan Tyrrell, nominated for Best Supporting Actress), on the rebound after her African American boyfriend (Curtis Coates) winds up cooling his jets in jail. Both Keach and Bridges are lined up for a semi-professional boxing bout – but quickly learn that victory in the ring doesn't necessarily translate to other areas.

It was with some trepidation that I saw that John Houston's classic Fat City slipped out of the envelope for me to review … but we'll get to that in a moment. As film scholars point out, Houston was fascinated with characters operating on the fringes of society and with the concept of failure. Photographed by the great Conrad Hall (The Day of the Locust, 1975), Fat City – a term used to describe a big payday after a long dry spell, plunges the audience into what is a seemingly hopeless world. But as Keach explains in a drunken haze towards the end of the film, “Before you can get rolling, your life makes a beeline to the drain.” The people who populate Fat City are in desperate straits, but yet find a reason to wake up in the morning to greet the day. 

In the audio commentary track with film historians Lem Dobbs and Nick Redman on this Twilight Time release, limited to 3,000 copies, both men note on how all American films on boxing, such as Rocky (1977) and Raging Bull (1980) always tend  to the extraordinary. This truism extends to American films that only have boxing as a subsidiary tot he main plot, such as From Here to Eternity (1945) and On the Waterfront (1954). Both Dobbs and Redman also adroitly state that Fat City is the best American film concerning alcoholism, even while Keach's and Tyrrell's boozy antics are peripheral to the overall story.

It is here that we break from a standard review of the film to note my own connection to Tyrrell. This writer interviewed Tyrrell in 1989, and while she was proud of her work in the film – the only other film she claimed to have liked in her illustrious career was in Forbidden Zone (1980) – she claimed that director Houston had raped her while filming. This certainly dampened her Academy Award nomination, and she said that all the high stakes that came along with that gold statuette were largely for naught. The 1972 Academy Awards would go down in infamy when Native American activist Saceheen Littlefeather, in full Indian dress declined Marlon Brando's Best Actor Award for The Godfather, Claiming that film film industry had contributed to the negative stereotypes associated with America's indigenous tribes. According to Tyrrell, she proudly applauded Littlefeather while a major film producer growled under his breath that Tyrrell had been essentially been “blackballed” for life.

People who knew the actress have since come forward and said that her loss propelled her into depression. While she contributed many memorable roles in horror, exploitation and cult films afterward, she allegedly thought that her career was had hit a dead end. 

Coupled with those impeccable liner notes by the indispensable Julie Kirgo and the film's original artsy theatrical trailer, any film fan worth their salt should pay a visit to Fat City. Whether a first-timer or repeat viewer, it's high time to become reacquainted with this American film classic.

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