Sunday 5 June 2016

Maybe We're All Happy: Fat City by Leonard Gardner

'Fat City' is an expression that means the big time, the jackpot, paradise — when you reach Fat City you've really got it made. So it's a bitingly ironic title for Leonard Gardner's 1969 novel about small time professional boxers who are never going to get anywhere.

The novel is a low key masterpiece and I advise you to seek it out and explore it. It's slim, taut and highly readable. And it was made into a film which also qualifies as a small masterpiece, directed by John Huston. It's one of Huston's greatest pictures and is increasingly recognised as a classic.

It tells the tale of Billy Tully (Stacy Keach), a washed up pro boxer now hanging around skidrow and drinking himself into oblivion.  He meets a promising young kid Ernie Monger (Jeff Bridges) and hooks him up with Tully's trainer Ruben (Nicholas Colasanto) — definitely a mixed blessing for Ernie.

The boxing bouts are peripheral, and our heroes mostly lose. There's one bitterly hilarious scene in which Ernie gets a flashy new robe. The first time he wears it to a match he takes it off as he steps into the ring and his trainer barely has time to carefully fold it before Ernie is lying on the canvas, knocked out cold.

The story also charts Tully and Ernie's relationships with women. Ernie's girlfriend Faye is excellently played by Candy Clark, but the real prize here goes to Susan Tyrell for her astounding performance as Oma, an even worse lush than Tully. Their woozy, drunken encounters are so beautifully observed, and so sad, that you don't know whether to laugh or cry. Tyrell deserved her Oscar nomination (however, Keach should have got one, too).

The screenplay is by Leonard Gardner, although some other uncredited writers might have contributed to drafts, including David Giler (also uncredited on Alien). The music, a canny selection of popular songs, is by Marvin Hamlisch, and the daring cinematography is by Conrad Hall.

The recent Blu-ray release on the smart little label Twilight Time does full justice to Hall's amazing photography — you step out of the blazing sunlight of Stockton California into the almost impenetrable shadows of a dingy bar; the fabrics of the characters' clothes just seem to glow, and every composition is perfect.

The ending of this movie, an inconsequential little encounter in a seedy cafe, is one of my favourite film moments ever. Tully, now deep in alcoholism, looks at the shaky old skeleton of a man serving them, and says to Ernie, "Maybe he's happy." Then he pauses and says, "Maybe we all are."

But that's not my favourite line. The best one is when a staggered Tully stares dazedly at his trainers after a battering ordeal in the ring and, trying to fathom what just happened, says, "Did I get knocked out?"

"No, we won!"

(Image credits: The Blu-Ray cover is from Twilight Time. The paperback cover is from Wikipedia. The yellow movie poster is from Gstatic. The great black and white shot of Keach and Bridges is from a fascinating article in the Sacramento Bee about Leonard Gardner's second novel — fifty years after the first!)

No comments:

Post a Comment