John Huston’s Fat City is the polar opposite of Rocky. While both movies are about a couple of down-on-their-luck losers who hope to find a measure of redemption in the ring, Rocky offers a fairy-tale ending of a sort. Stallone’s palooka may lose the fight at the end, but he wins the girl, a big purse, and his self-respect.
None of that happens in Fat City. There is no inspirational score, no tug at your heartstrings romance, and our hero (and boy am I using that word loosely) isn’t even someone you’re sure you want to root for.
That’s not to say that Billy Tully, played by a never-better Stacey Keach, doesn’t inspire any sympathy—this is clearly a man broken by a lost love and missed opportunity—it’s more that, in the end, you know he will not be redeemed. Tully is on a one-way trip to nowhere. His eyes are haunted by the memories of when he believed his life would turn out differently. All that’s left now is a grim-faced acceptance that days will pass and one day, so will he.
We are first introduced to Tully, a going quickly to seed former boxer, at a run-down gym in Stockton, CA where he meets half-assed aspiring pugilist Ernie Munger working a heavy bag. Munger, played by a young Jeff Bridges, is trim and athletic, and Tully takes an interest in him. Tully connects Munger with his old trainer, Ruben, played by Nicholas Colosanto, who would go on to greater fame playing “Coach” on Cheers. Munger has some natural talent, but he has an Achilles heel—a glass jaw.
The two men’s stories run on semi-parallel tracks. Munger gets a girl pregnant and briefly gets out of the fight game. Tully takes up with a prostitute named Oma, played to the hilt by an Oscar-nominated Susan Tyrell, after her pimp/boyfriend gets busted.
Tully and Oma are a match made somewhere far south of heaven. She’s a fractured, self-destructive soul who will say whatever hurts the most. Billy is nearly her match when it comes to seeking happiness. Neither believes it’s meant for them, and so they spend much of their time chasing regrets around the bottom of a whiskey glass at a bar that should have a sign on its entry that says “abandon all hope ye who enter here.”
For a brief moment, Tully and Oma try to make things work. Their true natures simply won’t allow it, though. These are people who live on the margins of life and seem to be doomed to stay there until their bad luck catches up to them and they drive into a telephone pole or walk in front of a bus. Fat City is a story about people who are just born unable to get out of their own way, and who lack both the resources and ingenuity to see beyond anything that isn’t five feet in front of their faces.
Tully’s fortunes slip so deeply that he loses his job as a fry cook and now works as a day laborer, jumping into a van at the crack of dawn to dig up onions or pick lemons off the ground of a well-shook tree. In fact, while Fat City takes place in what was then a modern time–the film was released in 1972–it has more in common with Steinbeck’s work. Sure, there may be rabbit-eared television sets and beat-up motor vehicles that orient you to the appropriate time and place, but there’s so much dirt and grit on screen, that you can almost forget that Fat City isn’t a lost story from the Dust Bowl.
After getting together with Oma, Tully decides to get back into the fight game. At one point, he states he will be 30 soon, and the declaration hits you like a shock to the system. With the scar on his lip and a thinning hairline quickly working its way to a combover, you’d swear Tully were at least a decade older.
Tully gets back in the ring, and while he wins his “comeback” fight against a Mexican journeyman, there is no joy in it. Over half his meager purse goes to paying back Ruben for an advance the trainer gave him, leaving Tully with a take home of just $100. It’s clear that however promising Tully may have once been (and there are allusions that he could have been a contender), those days are far gone and out.
That’s when Tully returns to form. Which means seeking solace in the nearest watering hole. When he drunkenly heads back to the place he and Oma are staying, he finds her pimp has returned. All Tully's belongings are handed to him in a box so small that you could fit not much more than a couple days’ worth of clothing in it.
Upon his ouster, Tully returns to a bar and drinks himself sloppy. As he leaves this house of ill-repute, he runs into Ernie getting in his car. Tully stops him and tries to talk Ernie into getting a drink. Ernie refuses, saying he needs to get home to his wife and kid. Tully takes note of Munger’s swollen face and asks him if he’s fighting again. Munger replies that he just won a bout by decision in Reno. Tully insults him, telling Munger he knew he was soft when he met him. Still, Ernie takes pity on Tully and agrees to go get a coffee. As the two sit at the counter drinking a cup of Joe, Tully spins around on his stool and takes in the crowd of dead-enders around him. In that frozen moment, it’s as if he comes to the full realization that this is his lot in life. There will never be anything more for him than what he sees in that diner. A bunch of people finishing out their days, hoping that a moment or two of light might sneak into the frame. A pensive Munger says he should be going. Tully begs him to stay and talk some more. Munger reluctantly acquiesces.
The two men then have a conversation about happiness that ends with Tully saying, “Maybe we are all happy” with less conviction than a man saying he is ready for his blindfold as the executioner loads his firearm with well rehearsed efficiency.
As the two men stare into the camera and the sounds of the film’s theme song, “Help Me Make It Through The Night” by Kris Kristofferson plays, you can tell what they are thinking.
Tully is in the process of accepting his fate as a loser, and Munger fears that one day he will be Tully, sitting on a stool in a coffee shop, trying to avoid a hangover, and regaling some half-a-hostage about what could have been.
As you look into Munger’s eyes, you can see the terror inside him. The odds are better than even that he will become a variation of Tully.
Once upon a time, Tom Petty sang a song that stated in a hopeful fashion that “even the losers get lucky sometimes.”
I suppose that’s true. Sometimes a hard-luck fellow wins a few hundred bucks on a scratch off, or finds a partner to live out his days with who makes the time and toil more bearable than it would otherwise be.
Fat City is not about those men. Fat City is about the other kind. The men that live out lives of quiet (and not so quiet) desperation.
Fat City ain’t no fairy tale. Fat City is the anti-Rocky. And as the credits roll over the faces of Keach and Bridges and the needle drops one last time on that Kristofferson song, that fact settles over you like a wet, dirty blanket. This is not a movie that seeks to entertain, it endeavors to inform you about the hard knock life. And does it ever complete its mission.
Most boxing movies are about winners. Fat City is about losers. The ones who don’t get lucky…anytime.