In production, during the period when the existential road film and the hippie western represented the height of Hollywood maverick-ism, John Huston’s 1972 Fat City was a critical hit—hailed then as the 66-year-old’s comeback and obvious now as the rejuvenated director’s contribution to the New Wave zeitgeist. (His follow-up would be The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, written by movie brat John Milius.)
Adapted by Leonard Gardner from his first novel, Fat City is a laconic, downbeat tale about a washed-up, hard-drinking boxer (Stacy Keach) who encounters and briefly sponsors a younger version of himself (Jeff Bridges), obviously destined for comparable failure. Shot on location in and around the lower depths of Stockton, California, the movie could be subtitled “The Beautiful Losers of Desolation Row”—it has a lyrical feel and even featured the quintessential counterculture country ballad, Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through the Night.”
Huston, who fought 25 professional bouts during his youth, was clearly invested in the material, as well as in his hungry young performers. Keach and Bridges, the skinniest pugilists to grace the screen since Robert Ryan stumbled through The Set-Up, both give graceful performances. Whether picking onions or walking into punches, melancholy Keach, just done playing a revisionist Doc Holliday, is particularly affecting. In the victorious aftermath of one prolonged, not very pretty, slugfest, he wonders if he has been knocked out. Still, this hapless palooka is upstaged by his sometime love interest—fellow New York actor, dissolute flower child, and future Warhol performer, Susan Tyrrell.
Hoarsely imperious as a high-falutin’ dipso, the 26-year-old Tyrrell gives the movie a compelling subtext, having invested her entire career in the role of a permanently plastered barfly. (She was nominated for Supporting Actress on an Oscar night made famous by the costumed quasi-hippie who accepted for Marlon Brando under the nom de guerre “Sacheen Littlefeather.”) Tyrrell’s shameless face-pulls and drunken antics make Fat City less a slice of life than a piece of cake. Still, the movie is crafty work and very much a show. In one way or another, right down to the percussively abrupt open ending, it’s all about being hammered.