Winners Take Nothing Anyway – John Huston’s Fat City

Michael Caine once said, “Most directors don’t know what they want so they shoot everything they can think of—they use the camera like a machine gun. John uses it like a sniper.”

I can’t claim to have seen every boxing film ever made, not even all the good ones, but if you were to ask me what the two best boxing pictures of all time were, the two unquestionable masterpieces, without a second thought I’d say Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull and John Huston’s Fat City.

While the two, of course, share a lot of common ground, both films really occupy two very different spaces. Both films are unrelenting and raw, but the way they get there are totally different. Raging Bull revels in stylistic exaggerations, full of slow-mo, quick cuts, dolly zooms, and an expressionistic use of blood splatter to create its power. Fat City feels real, full of that Jack London’s A Piece of Steak Kitchen Sink realism. It’s dry and unforgiving and doesn’t let you look away.

Fat City, whilst marketing itself as a boxing film, is far more than just a sports film. Raging Bull, as well drawn and sympathetic its secondary characters are, is first and foremost an unforgiving character study of Jake LaMotta. Fat City, on the other hand, is almost an ensemble piece. It follows two boxers, an up-and-coming Stacy Keach and a very young Jeff Bridges, and Oma Lee Greer played by Susan Tyrrell, an alcoholic that Keach bunks up with for a time. Fat City is pretty even handed with its characters, giving as much time to the plight of its fighters as to the plight of the deeply wounded Susan Tyrrell.

Based on a book by Leonard Gardner, Fat City really saved John Huston’s career, if not in his mind then at least in the mind of critics who hadn’t been too kind to what Huston had been turning out. Films like The Kremlin Letter and A Walk with Love and Death just not getting the attention they seemed to deserve. Even going as far back as 1963’s The List of Adrian Messenger, John Huston’s films just weren’t performing like they were back in the Asphalt Jungle days. Once upon a time, John Huston was one of the most prolific directors ever to work in Hollywood, releasing classic after classic after classic, with films under his belt like The Maltese Falcon, The African Queen, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and so many others.

When it came to trying to find an actor to play the lead role, the first person that came to Huston’s mind was an actor he’d worked with in the past on 1967’s Reflections in a Golden Eye: Marlon Brando. As anyone familiar with the production of The Godfather knows, Marlon Brando, at this point in his career, hadn’t been exactly popular among film producers and studio heads for some time, having repeatedly sent production after production way over budget and over schedule, the most notorious example of this being 1962’s The Mutiny on the Bounty. But, beyond all of this, he was still Marlon Brando, one of the greatest actors ever to work and for a moment it looked like he might be interested. But he didn’t call back. Instead Huston turned to an up-and-comer who’d caught his eye: Stacy Keach, familiar today as one of the most enduring character actors of all time but why he never had more starring roles is beyond me. As the Coen Brothers said in an interview with Noah Baumbach, “You start with Stacy Keach, you can’t go wrong.”

Fat City, a film about a Boxer far past his prime desperately trying to reclaim lost glory, has more than a few parallels to Huston’s own life. As Huston said in an interview: “I agree with Hemingway that winners take nothing anyway… Unlike the gambler who throws his money onto the table, the fighter throws himself in. He gives more to his profession than almost any other artist and the chances of him being a success are very remote indeed. Only one in several thousand ever get the chance of being champion and even being champion doesn’t necessarily mean he’s found any security or haven in life.”

“We’re all fighters in a sense. He’s a symbol. We all take the same beatings. Some spiritually, some mentally, and, maybe the lucky man, physically.” While glory may be fleeting, the wounds we receive attaining that glory have a knack for sticking around.

Written by Tom May
Tom May is a Melbourne based writer, filmmaker and columnist with a vast knowledge of film, BBQ and Paul Thomas Anderson.