by Jim Ridley
TCM had scheduled Fat City for 7 p.m. tonight — good job, guest programmer Ellen Barkin — even before the sad news broke that its Oscar-nominated co-star, Susan Tyrrell, died yesterday at age 67. Thus a night of film appreciation takes on the occasion of a memorial service, with Tyrrell's performance an indelible epitaph.
In movies such as Forbidden Zone and Paul Verhoeven's medieval fantasy Flesh+Blood — that range alone speaks volumes — Tyrrell was a memorably grating presence. In a routine studio picture, she came off like horseradish in a bridge club's aspic. In Fat City, as tanktown boxer Stacy Keach's toxic companion, she's a human bruise — a lifetime's tightly strung collection of accumulated hurts and hair-trigger slights, as ready to snap as piano wire if she thinks she heard some sideways inflection in your voice.
If you've never seen Fat City, don't miss the chance to watch veteran director John Huston and cinematographer Conrad Hall teach those new-Hollywood tadpoles something about location-shooting grit, unsparing character detail and winner-lose-all despair. This vintage Theo Panayides appreciation from a 2003 Scene Nashville Film Festival preview says it all:
John Huston’s poetic 1972 boxing movie—tragedy seen through the corner of the eye—shows up Raging Bull for the macho adolescent fantasy that it is. Two small-time pugs cross paths in a California town—one an unambitious kid (Jeff Bridges) just starting out, the other a self-destructive ex-champ (Stacy Keach) heading for the skids. As a film about boxers, this is perhaps second only to Robert Wise’s The Set-Up—but it’s not just a film about boxers. It’s a sounding of director Huston’s favorite theme, from The Asphalt Jungle to Wise Blood: losers and small-timers living on the fringe of society, the flipside of the American Dream. There’s undoubtedly something a mite self-conscious to the movie’s relentlessly downbeat tone, its wasted-looking characters propping up bars as Kris Kristofferson sings “Help Me Make It Through the Night” on the soundtrack. But there’s honesty in its details and a compassion to its equable, sympathetic tone—typified by the scenes involving an aged Mexican boxer who departs the film as noiselessly and with as much dignity as he entered it.