Sunday, September 4, 2011

Fat City

Twenty-some years ago when I was a teenager, the local newspaper's TV listings said that the PBS station was going to be airing the movie Fat City. The title sounded interesting, so I stayed up for the 11:00 PM or 11:30 starting time, only to be assaulted by the sight of a paunchy Stacy Keach in just his undies getting out of bed and getting ready for the day. I didn't need to be assaulted by this, and I would have had to stay up close to 1:00 AM to see the end of the movie, so I said the heck with it and went to bed, which is probably for the best, as I don't think this is really a movie that the younger set will understand. But, I remembered the title, and when it finally showed up on TCM a few years back, I sat down and watched it. Fat City is once again back on the TCM schedule, airing September 5 at 6:00 AM ET.

The aforementioned Stacy Keach plays Billy Tully, an aging boxer whose career is on the decline, as if it were ever even on the ascendancy. Billy is living in a dingy hole in the wall in Stockton, California, hoping that he might one day get a chance at another fight, and training half-heartedly while living a hand-to-mouth existence. On the first morning we see him, Billy goes to a local gym where he meets young Ernie (Jeff Bridges), a greenhorn who likes boxing and is too naïve to have been ground down by the world of boxing yet. Billy thinks Ernie has some ability and takes him to the gym where Billy would practice if he could afford it. The rest of the movie deals with each of the two men trying to manage their personal lives while getting their boxing careers going.

It's not much of a plot, but then, Fat City is much more of a character study. In as much as it focuses on these people, Fat City succeeds quite well. These are characters who start off the movie not having much going for them, and end the movie having just about as much, if that much. Back in the days of the studio system, Hollywood had a tendency to glamorize boxing with characters like Robert Montgomery's in Here Comes Mr. Jordan. When things weren't this glamorous, the seamier side of boxing was generally overlooked, as in They Made Me a Criminal or The Champ. Not so with Fat City. Boxers who can't make it anywhere near the top are brutally chewed up and spit out, left to eke out threadbare existences. This image is greatly helped by the fact that by 1972, when Fat City was released, it was much more common to use location shooting, making the sort of crappy apartments characters like these would live in easier to depict: just film the real thing. The living spaces here are reminiscent of movies like The Panic in Needle Park, or the beginning of Five Easy Pieces.

Even if you're not interested in boxing (and I'm not very interested in it), Fat City is still an excellent movie well worth watching.

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