John Huston was totally burnt out when he made Fat City in 1971. He had a huge string of flops and, with the exception of a handful of films, the quality of his work had been on a steady decline since the mid ’50s. It was also the time of what would be fondly looked upon as “New Hollywood”: but while Huston may have been of the old Hollywood era, he certainly had the bite in him to adapt to the changing times.
Fat City is based on a book by Leonard Gardner, who also adapted his book to the screen. It’s very much an update of what John Steinbeck was writing about in the ’30s and ’40s, but with an almost Beat or even pulpy urgency to his characterisations. Stacy Keach, in a career-best role, plays Billy Tully, an alcoholic boxer who is well past his prime but decides to try to get fit so he can fight again. He meets the 18-year-old Ernie Munger (Jeff Bridges) at the local YMCA, and after sparring with him, Tully suggests Munger should hit up his old coach because he sees potential in the kid. Tully’s wife has left him, and he still blames his coach for messing up his last big match—and to make ends meet, he gets up at the crack of dawn to get the bus with migrant workers to pick fruit and vegetables. He soon meets fellow barfly Oma (Susan Tyrrell), who is as damaged as he is if not more so, and they quickly move in together. The relationship is rocky, but he attempts to try fighting again after being re-energised by Ernie’s local success.
Few films have such a perfect sense of time and place than Fat City. The film is set on the skid row of Stockton, California, which is where Gardner was from. It was shot more or less there, but on the outer fringe of the original skid row because it had been torn down a couple of years before the production began. It’s a small, desolate California town that seems like a boring and miserable place—no wonder you would have a band like Pavement came out of it two decades later.
The film’s down and dirty look was helped enormously via its cinematography by Conrad Hall, one of the most impressive cinematographers ever. It looks almost noirish, especially in the interior sequences. John Huston’s films almost always dealt with men trying to achieve an unattainable goal, and like one of his earlier masterpieces, The Treasure of Sierra Madre, this film is no exception. The film’s final moments—and the use of “Help Me Make It Through the Night” by Kris Kristofferson, which bookends the beginning and end of the film—perfectly crystallises the characters and story.
Fat City was one of Stacey Keach’s earlier films, and he’s great in it—it remains the best work he has ever done. It’s also an early appearance for Jeff Bridges , who had just done The Last Picture Show, another film on eccentric characters in small towns. And then there’s Susan Tyrell, who is amazing, and received a much-deserved Oscar nomination for this, her second film role. Due to mental health issues, Tyrell did very few films afterwards, appearing mostly in oddball roles in films like Forbidden Zone, Big Top Pee Wee and Cry Baby. According to John Waters she would introduce herself as “Hi I’m Suzy, and I have the pussy of a 12-year-old”.
Huston has said Fat City was “about the spiritual process of the defeated and the futility and indestructibility of hope,” and that is a good summary.
The disc includes a new documentary featuring interviews with Stacey Keach and Candy Clark, commentary by Lem Dobbs and Nick Redmond, an illustrated audio interview with author Leonard Gardner, and archival features with John Huston, one of which is a video interview for French TV and the other an audio recording of Huston at the NFT. The isolated score, the trailer and an image gallery round off the package, along with a fat booklet featuring a new essay, contemporary reviews and some of John Huston’s reminiscences about the film.