Glutton for Punishment


On Film

Fat City and the dark night of boxing’s soul.

From an Italian poster for Fat City.

Boxing and cinema are so perfectly mated that if the sport didn’t exist Hollywood may well have invented it. Its tropes—man’s internal struggle with his demons, his past, and his station, all externalized in a desperate fight against an opponent who could be a drinking buddy but who stands, right now, in the way of dreams, success, and validation—dates back to Homer, and they’re ready-made for the movies.

The reality of boxing is, of course, not so clean. It’s brutal, unforgiving, and easily corruptible; the runway to the ring littered with broken bodies, shattered lives, and buckets of blood. Redemption? That’s only in the pictures. Which is not to say boxing films avoid hard truths about the sport. Gangsters, hucksters, bums, schemes, and death abound, especially in the titles released in the forties and fifties. But Hollywood approaches the inherent danger and venality of the fight game cautiously, never staring too long into the abyss. To do so would be to stray too far from the formula: audiences should go home cheering, if not for a champion then for a guy who failed stoically and with class. No one wants to spend time—or, more importantly, money—on a downer. 

That makes Fat City, John Huston’s punishing 1972 adaptation of Leonard Gardner’s 1969 brass-knuckled sucker punch of a novel, something of a miracle. It’s so contrary to expectation that it’s better to call it the antiboxing film. There are no champions, only losers on the margins of a castoff society. Characters imagine boxing glory but can’t overcome their own base urges or interior conflicts long enough to earn it. When they do climb into the ring, it’s only because they’re tired of topping onions in sweltering heat for pennies. Fighting is the best worst option, but even that pays a pittance.

Only in the upside-down world of New Hollywood could a film as jaundiced and cynical about pugilism find big-studio support (in this case from Columbia). And naturally, it flopped with audiences. But critics loved it, and over the years its supporters have helped turn Fat City into a cult classic. The evangelization continues this week: tomorrow, November 20, a new 4K restoration of the film opens at New York’s Film Forum. (The book, meanwhile, has been reissued by NYRB Classics, and Twilight Time recently released the film on Blu-ray.)

Set in blighted Stockton, California, Fat City is an unrelenting depiction of people, as Gardner writes, “overwhelmed by the monumental misery of the present.” The headliners are fighters in parallel downward spirals: twenty-nine-year-old Billy Tully (Stacy Keach), a washed-out pug bouncing between bars, seedy hotels, and dehumanizing day labor; and eighteen-year-old Ernie Munger (Jeff Bridges), a mediocre wannabe trapped in a failing town with limited prospects, mounting responsibilities, and fading aspirations. The men are funhouse-mirror reflections of each other: Tully sees who he was, Ernie who he will become.

The bleak tone is set immediately with an opening sequence, shot on Stockton’s Skid Row, of impoverished, transient hobos and laborers shuffling in and out of bars, lingering in doorways, and otherwise wasting away in a sun-bleached town crumbling around them. (None of these people are actors. Huston employed as many nonprofessionals as possible to ensure the film’s authenticity.) When we finally meet Tully, he’s in underwear and a sport shirt, lying on a bare bed in a crummy room, the only motivation for movement is to locate a match among empty bottles and crumpled cigarette packs. When he can’t find one, he decides to grab his gear, head to the YMCA, and work a punching bag, you know, since he’s up. Huston scores it all with Kris Kristofferson’s achingly morose “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” whose lyrics include, “Yesterday is dead and gone / And tomorrow’s out of sight / And it’s sad to be alone / Help me make it through the night.”

From an Italian poster for Fat City.

Compare that to Rocky (1976), the next major studio–backed boxing film. It begins with Bill Conti’s inspiring fanfare, the title scrolling heroically across the screen, demonstrating immediately a cloying earnesty 180 degrees away from Fat City’s caustic irony. The next image is the face of Jesus Christ, followed by a pan down to a cheap ring in a smoky church auditorium where Rocky inelegantly fights some schlub. It’s not a rosy picture of Rocky’s place in the world, and it gets more depressing before it gets better. But he’s fighting—and winning. Never mind he’s so bad that, after his victory, an elderly woman flags him down on his way to the locker room to harangue him for being a bum; the looming religious iconography promises a salvation Tully could never fathom. Later, Conti’s theme returns during the requisite training montage and we’re roused to the film’s optimism: “Trying hard now / Getting strong now / won’t be long now / Gonna fly now / flying high now.”

Rocky is schmaltz taken to its extreme, but it’s the only way Hollywood could undo Gardner (who also wrote the screenplay) and Huston’s complete rejection of it. In its opening five minutes, Fat City does everything boxing movies are supposed to avoid. And from there, it sets about slaughtering convention, burning the remains, and flushing the ashes down the toilet: Tully shacks up in a dysfunctional relationship with a wino while her old man’s in jail. Ernie knocks up his girlfriend, forcing him to marry someone he just wanted to screw. Both men scrounge up work in the predawn cattle calls for peach pickers and walnut harvesters.

Oh, and they do end up in the ring—if you can call what they do boxing. We see Ernie fight twice; he loses both times, first after his nose is broken and then when he’s knocked out in under thirty seconds. (We do learn that he has racked up a few victories, but, naturally, we never see them.) Tully’s lone bout comes seventy-six minutes into the ninety-six-minute film. It’s inelegant and sloppy, an out-of-shape ham-and-egger colliding with a sick older boxer from Mexico City. Tully wins, but he can only stare vacantly beyond the crowd. This moment of victory, assigned so much importance by character and genre, neither assuages his emptiness nor provides us with catharsis.

In the final scene, Tully, now destitute, drinks coffee with Ernie at a gambling hall and wonders if the ancient Chinese man serving them is their future. “Before you get out of your room, your life makes a beeline for the drain,” he says before trailing off. The men stare ahead, resigned to a dead-end fate both sought to avoid but now realize is inescapable. Cue Kristofferson, roll credits, fade out.

Hard to imagine no one wanted to see a film of such crushing existential defeat—especially as Vietnam raged, stagflation began its inexhaustible burn through the economy, and Nixon’s cronies broke into the Watergate. (Believe it or not, Gardner’s book, itself a demolition of the romanticized sentimentality found in novels like W. C. Heinz’s The Professional, is even more hopeless, its world more nightmarish, by forcing us to rattle around inside Tully and Ernie’s heads as they reckon with lives “laden with remorse” and where “catastrophes seemed to whisper just beyond hearing.”) But this isn’t a case of Huston and Gardner misjudging their audience. They spent time as small-time boxers in California before turning to more creative pursuits, and they appreciated what it meant to be a fighter, especially one far removed from the bright lights of national attention. “Of course, the cards are stacked against him,” Huston told a French interviewer in 1972. “He can’t come to a very good end. I naturally feel great compassion towards the fighter.” That empathy compelled them to remedy Hollywood fantasy with bracing reality. It just so happened there was limited interest in their brand of verisimilitude.

Fat City is a barbed, bitter pill that hurts like hell going down—especially if you aren’t expecting the pain. Once you’ve swallowed it, it’s impossible to watch fight films with a sense of escapism. Tully and Ernie, penniless and bruised, eternally gazing out from that diner counter, linger in your memory and provide a constant reminder of what fighters—and honest boxing pictures—really look like. And as a new crop of films cycles into theaters, from Southpaw (a by-the-numbers riches-to-rags-to-enlightenment fable released this spring) to Creed (a Rocky spin-off out later this month) to Hands of Stone (a biopic due next year), Fat City has more to say than ever, and it remains an essential, unsparing corrective in an increasingly maudlin genre.

Dante A. Ciampaglia is a writer, editor, and photographer in New York. His work has been published by Time, Architectural Record, and Forbes, among others.