In the Company of Men: "Fat City" Directed by John Huston, 1972
John Huston’s 28th film Fat City, based on Leonard Gardner’s 1969 novel of the same name, may not be the best boxing film of all time, but it’s definitely the coolest. Anyone seeking the glamour of the ring, the blast of camera bulbs, the droning roar of the fans, the cash and the cars would do better to look elsewhere. But those searching for a portal to the other 99% - the ham and eggers, the journeymen, the tomato cans, the canvas backs, the bums - they'll find themselves locked for an even hundred minutes inside the barren life of a waning fighter’s self-fulfilling prophecy of failure. There is a dangerous, prophetic element to Fat City of the wholly fictionalized invention among men that their life’s die has been cast when it’s only just beginning.
Stacey Keach is Billy Tully who, at 29, is broke, drunk, abandoned by his wife, and has been blowing around Stockton, California for what seems like a thousand years without a decent meal. With the eyes of a scared but hopeful dog tied to a post, Keach’s face simpers with an open kindness that remains guarded. Be it a trip to the gym or life’s bigger decisions he’d prefer to put off (though he wouldn’t be able to tell you what they are if you asked), he questions almost every move he makes. Migrants and other down-at-heel ghosts that haunt this sun-drenched urban inferno - including Billy when money’s tight, and it usually is - work the onion fields and cherry orchards of the surrounding farmlands of the San Joaquin Valley. Awakening to the sun’s cruel rays as they fan out into strips that edge through the blinds and down his filthy bed in his filthy room in a filthy hotel, Billy lights a cigarette and contemplates the half-full (or is it half-empty?) bottle next to the bed. Instead of grabbing the neck for a quick dog hair, he heads for the local Y.
Peppering the heavy bag , he notices a young kid whacking the speed bag. He switches to an easy shadowbox before, finally approaching him to ask if he’d like to spar a bit. The kid is Ernie Munger, a good-looking eighteen-year-old played by a twenty-year-old, baby-faced Jeff Bridges. Trading gentle blows, Ernie asks Billy is he’s a pro. “I used to be, but I’m all out of shape,” he answers before he drops his gloves to his knees, winded by what is undoubtedly his hangover. Billy raises his eyebrows in surprise upon learning that Ernie has never had a fight. No, he just comes here to mess around. Well, he should go see Billy’s friend Ruben who manages the (real-life and now-defunct) Lido gym along with several young fighters. Good tip. On his way out, Ernie tells Billy that he’s seen him fight once. “Did I win?,” Billy asks with skepticism, to which Ernie answers “No.”
While eating his usual drink of choice at his usual watering hole, Billy moves in on the company of the whiny, raucous Oma (Candy Clark) and her man Earl (the real-life 3-year welterweight champion Curtis Cokes), about whom Oma is loudly complaining. “I don’t see why I can’t have a little fun!” she laments to a numb, indifferent Earl and the entire bar in general. She accuses Earl of being at once no-count and boring. He certainly looks bored, and by his expression, this scratchy, grating tune has been on repeat for some time.
Ernie introduces himself to the affable Ruben at the Lido Gym, a hotbed of future has-beens and never-will-bes. Ruben’s voice is soft with the gravelly smoothness of fine hourglass sand; his tone of perpetual concern shaped by years of dealing with unreliable He inquires after Billy, who has been ducking the place since his relatively recent sink into dissipation. Ruben is impressed with the kid - a 175 pound middleweight who he “could turn into a good-looking white [italics mine] heavyweight.” “I got nothin’ against coloreds,” he explains with genuine earnestness, “There’s just too many of them in the game.” While African Americans had long become fully integrated into the sport among the bigger tickets (in fact, they dominated the sport, holding the titles in most divisions the year the film was released), some things hadn’t changed by 1970 among the low-ranking cards of professionals.
After a day of training at the Lido (as Gardner writes in his novel), “bruised, fatigued and elated, [Ernie] felt he had joined the company of men.” But Billy also wants to get back into the game, to leave behind what he hopes is merely a liminal period of sleeping rough and drinking rougher; picking onions with the migrants, the drunks, the derelicts and addicts. He carries a flask in his pocket to stave off boredom and studiously avoids capitulation by falling into the torpid impotency that clouds the vacant eyes of the men surrounding him. He is a fighter, and his plan for a comeback suggest that out in these fields, a life without aspirations is a life without meaning. It must follow that a life without meaning is to not exist at all.
The relationships of men – with each other and with women – give shape to a story that expands and contracts in its tensions between union and isolation. Billy lives his life regretting every moment he didn’t appreciate the wife who walked out on him not so long ago. Sitting at his bar stool, he again runs into Oma, who is alone this time. Earl's in jail, as Oma explains in her nasal boom, “Because they won’t let you alone in this world. You don’t know what you have to take when you’re interracial!” She tells him that Earl raped her the same night the three of them had met but that she’s “never been ashamed of the act of love.” Billy leans in with his elbows on the bar to size her up, most likely wondering how he can get into her pants (most right-minded men would buy her a drink and high-tail it to the other end of the bar). But no, the two jump right to bickering. Billy begins to drum upon the bar to Oma that he’s her man, she can count on him. “You can count,” he tells her, pausing for another drumroll, “…on ME.” “You’re the only son of a bitch worth shit in this place,” she tells him, and together they walk out onto the sun-soaked street. She begins to cry and tells him she loves him. Not only does he believe her, he moves into Earl’s place while her fella’s in the clink.
On the eve of Ernie’s first fight he is knee-deep in mud trying to get his car unstuck as a deluge blasts down upon the muddy puddle where he and his girlfriend Faye have just given each other their virginity. Gardner writes, “To appear in the ring tomorrow without ever having won this other battle seemed presumptuous and dangerous.” The rain that pours down on the heels of the deflowerings serves as a sort of Victorian pathetic fallacy, its ominous overtones manifesting as a broken condom and a pregnancy. Their first night together foreshadows the oppression that directly follows.
The following night, Ruben and four of his protégés head into the city for fight night. The venue is small, and the promoter assures Ruben that he has a fighter named Lucero in mind for Billy if the guy’s seriously considering a return to the ring. On another bench, an 18-year-old black fighter is announcing his plan to become world champion before he’s twenty. “You want to know what makes a good fighter?” he proselytizes to anyone who will listen (and it is Ernie who is caught in the crossfire), “Believing in yourself! The will to win! You wanna kick ass, you kick ass!” It’s the bluster of many fighters used to psych themselves up, albeit with slightly fewer platitudes. Believe you’re the best and maybe you are. The kid is kayoed in the first.
When does a fighter realize he’s no good at fighting no matter how much he may enjoy it? The contrast of this tomato can with his idealized fantasy exemplifies Gardner’s probity into the cosmic error can inadvertently destroy any meaning life may hold, and that perhaps we have been placed in exactly the wrong place at exactly the wrong time. Keach manages to personify this doubt in the perpetual concerned mask he wears throughout the film, as though waiting in a slow-moving queue to find out if he’s missed the train. All the while Ernie’s face reveals his anxiety as, one eye on the kitchen timer, Faye’s bun warms in the oven.
"…he should have known all along that he was nothing. Boxers were men in other towns, in big cities far from this car parked in the darkness alongside the highway between fields of vegetables.”
Of course, things don’t go well with Billy and Oma squatting in Earl’s pad. Earl’s not exactly inside for life, and it’s only a matter of time before he comes ‘round again. Oma gives him one of Earl’s blazers and Billy dons his own short-rimmed white fedora. Like a dapper Dickensian urchin or an un-showered Henry Miller waking up in a strange Parisian apartment (it’s the hat), he assesses himself - those dark eyes, the scars, the prominent hairlip… but a smooth face, worn as if by attrition like a stone by water over the centuries to create a gentle frontage. But all things move toward their end, and this is especially true when it comes to just how long a fellow can tolerate a woman like Oma.
The fight's set between Billy and Lucero, the only announcement taped to a hotel window. Into said hotel walks a spiffy, well-built Mexican in a fitted suit and hat carrying a cardboard suitcase. This is Lucero, who has just made the 2,100-mile trip up from Mexico City. Settling into his small room, he goes into the bathroom and lifts up the toilet seat. Bloody urine that clouds the water with seeping pink, indicating a recent fight. Far from contender material, Lucero is a journeyman constantly on the ready for the call to fight. It’s just work.
In his book Journeymen: The Other Side of the Boxing Business, A New Perspective on the Noble Art, Mark Turley interviews several such boxers in an attempt to glean their own assessments of where they stand in the sport as a whole. Their stories make a strong case that, without their participation, it would be virtually impossible to stage most boxing events. Nevertheless they remain scrappers, better in street fights than under the Queensberry Rules. But overall, they take a surprisingly positive attitude toward their chosen path. “The way I look at it is I’m losing but I’m not, because the money I’m earning is more than your average person and it’s helping me get to my goals, so I’m winning in my own way, on my own journey, just maybe not in the eyes of the public.” So says the English super-middleweight James Child, who is also aware that his job is to lose.
Susan Tyrell as Oma Lee Grear
On the eve of the fight, Billy drunkenly calls Ruben from the bar to tell him off as only a drunk can or would, which is to say hyperbolically and without making a lick of sense. In a screed utterly devoid of detailed accusations, he rambles nonsensically about Ruben’s never having helped him, never being there for him, etc. Ruben rushes to the bar to get his wayward boy home to bed. Before they leave, however, Billy pins Ruben to the wall (more out of drunken conviction than anger), and subjects him to endure a catalog of complaints about Oma: “Every time she opens her mouth I think I’m gonna go crazy!” He’s got to get out of there fast.
The following day Billy and Lucero hammer each other’s bodies for the first round before moving to the face. The fight here begs less scrutiny than most others within the genre: undercards are the equivalent of coming attractions. They’re not the main event, but who wants to miss the trailers? They’re the one part of the movie-going experience where you’re at least guaranteed some action.
To watch Keach is to watch a man who is obviously acting at boxing. Despite the absence of a honed science, his aggression wins him the fight by a TKO in the third, though he has no idea just what happened. Exiting the ring he asks Ruben, “Did I get knocked out?”
Ruben counts out Billy’s share of the purse, which, after manager, trainer, promoter, and other sundry cuts and expenses, amounts to a paltry twenty dollars. As this single bill is proffered, Billy’s comeback, his decision to quit drinking, and his plans to get back on a regular training regimen grow less enticing. “Is that all my blood’s worth?” he shouts at Ruben. Knocking on Oma’s door to pick up his cloths, it swings open to reveal Earl, and he’s back, baby. Oma’s nagging complaints immediately issue from somewhere in the room. Ignoring her mewling histrionics, Earl inquires about the previous night’s fight and is genuinely pleased for Billy’s victory. But now he’s got to go. Men need to take care of each other, but they also need to know when it’s time to disappear.
The fighters of Fat City feel to us like life’s losers because they have already convinced themselves they are. But in the oppressive heat and shot-out storefronts of Stockton, how does a man prove to himself that he is in fact alive? Not by picking onions and cherries, and certainly not in benders lived out in squalid hotels. Billy’s belief that he’s done some good in this stinking world emerges through the delusion that he is acting as some kind of sawed-off, would-be mentor who’s convinced a younger fighter to move forward in a game that’s destroyed him. Furthermore, he’s really done nothing to follow through on this ambition. For a man in search of a future, he’s not looking very hard. For Ernie things are even more amorphous since his days of what he now realizes were freedom have vanished with Faye’s pregnancy, resigning him to a marriage by default and the weight of a decent man’s iron-clad sense of responsibility. What else can we expect of him but to hinge his hopes on a future in the ring? And all because some drunken pug sent him to the Lido Gym. Should these men (and remember, as Gardner puts it, we are “in the company of men”) find their own sources of comfort and joy elsewhere?
Despite Billy’s win, a full comeback seems unlikely. The first clue is his return to the bar from which he emerges - not the gym. Upon stumbling out, he runs into Ernie. Initially the drunken Billy tries to razz his would-be (or could-have-been) protégé, boasting about his past record, his string of kayos. Then, as if a light switch is turned on, he realizes the misdirection to which his bitterness has led him (or that he even harbors this overflowing resentment at all). He begins asking, then fairly pleading, with Ernie to get a drink with him, but Ernie’s off the booze - he’s a fighter now. Well, what about coffee?
Sitting side by side at the counter in silence, Ernie gazes into his cup while Billy swivels upon his stool scanning the joint. Then something strange happens: everything stops. Billy’s face is motionless; everyone mulling around the place freezes in their tracks. Time has suspended itself to give Billy an extra minute to catch up with the pace of life, no matter how slow it moves - maybe a minute is all he needs. Or perhaps time has given him a brief respite, all motion halted so he may sit for a moment, mercifully plucked from his directionless existence to reevaluate. When motion resumes, Ernie announces that he’d better get home to Faye, but Billy asks him to stay - please - just a little longer. He needs someone to talk to. As Ernie sits back down next to him, the two continue to drink their coffee in silence. Perhaps there’s nothing left to say. Does redemption lie in wait, or is this the best he’ll get? We’ll never know. That sticks in the viewer’s mind and guts longer than any exaggerated biopic or triumphant fairy tale.
Leonard Gardner and John Huston, In the Company of Men.