But it shouldn't have surprised anybody. Huston was a gambler by trade and by hobby, and was never afraid of taking on different approaches to telling a story. Sure, he could take a mis-step here and there, especially when he tried to do somthing "of the times," rather than in his own perenneal classicism. It was always story for Huston, and he was never afraid to take things in complex directions.
Fat City is a tale of two boxers—Tully (Stacy Keach) and Ernie (Jeff Bridges) one on the way up and one on the way down, but the only difference between the two, career-wise, is in the timing. Ernie is in the early rounds of the bout, all pupptish energy and vigor. Keach's Tully is in the later stages of the fight, battered, bruised, and tired, having known defeat and the ocassional victory, always just out of reach of a right jab. When we first encounter them, Ernie has yet to have his first professional fight. Tully is a couple years out of the ring, barely subsisting. He's scarred over, but that hardening of tissue, mostly keeps the sense-memory of past victories ringing in his head. Both mean are trying to get into the ring, one with no way of knowing what will come when he's in it, and the other all too aware of the toll it will take...but, anything is better than his current situation. As it's said in The Shawshank Redemption, you either gotta get busy living or get busy dying. In this case, living is fighting. And for the older pugilist, there's still some fighting to be done, rounds to go before he sleeps.
Huston has had many great male performances under his direction, from such as Bogart, Gable, Clift, Brando, Connery, Finney, but I don't think I've ever seen a better performance in one of Huston's films than Stacy Keach in this.* In whatever you've seen him in, nothing prepares you for the internalized pain that Keach conveys in every aspect of his performance. And there's one moment that will stay with me for the rest of my life. During the fight-centerpiece of the film, when Tully makes his comeback, he's knocked to the canvas, but never counted out. He spends an interminable nine seconds on his knees and elbows, head hanging—and there's a moment, a long moment, when you wonder if he's going to get up—if he even wants to get up. Then, he rolls up into a rickety stance to complete the last few seconds of the round. The fighters retreat to their corners and Keach sprawls on his stool, as the cut-men treat a bleeding gash over his left eye.
Huston stays on Keach's face, and there is no expression on it—none. So, you go to his eyes, which are dead, betraying no light and no spark. There may be nothing going on in his mind except the most primal reptile instincts to survive; his head is a black hole, nothing leaves, and there may be nothing to leave. He's a shell, hollow and broken. That look will show up again in the film, as a final note, lacking in grace, the soundtrack empty, giving a brief glimpse of death, a living one, yes, but a death that still haunts.
|Keach in Huston's Fat City|
* Everybody is good in this, but one should also note Susan Tyrrell's feisty, free-wheeling performance of a drunk bar-fly that is on par with Keach's and feels so real you want to throw up your hands and give up.