SUSAN TYRRELL DIED earlier this month, and the reports say she was sixty-seven. Maybe that was so, but if so in Fat City, made in 1972, and her great work, she would have been twenty-seven. I find that hard to credit, but every time I see Fat City I am asking myself how a woman like this ever got into a movie that was produced by Ray Stark! The exclamation mark comes from the fact that Stark also produced Funny Girl and The Way We Were. He liked things nice and glamorous, and there’s nothing wrong with that, especially if you’re a bum or a barfly in the Californian Central Valley where it’s hard enough to scrape together ticket money to get into a movie and enjoy the cool air. If the air conditioning is working.
Fat City never feels air-conditioned. It is a slim, tough novel (183 pages) published in 1969 by Leonard Gardner. I am lucky enough to know Leonard and to feel the quality of Fat City in terms of his experience and his wry, battered, going-deaf kindness and humor. So I am biased, or in his favor, but I can’t help that and plenty of other people swear by the accuracy and bleak eloquence of the novel (Dennis Johnson and Michael Ondaatje for two), and treasure the movie. So if you’re serious about this tribute to Susan Tyrrell, you should get hold of the book and read it before you see the movie.
It’s a story about boxers in Stockton, California, a sizeable town and an agricultural center. There must be a history of making money in Stockton, but the place is very guarded about letting that show. Leonard was born there in 1933—he could be a child in some of the pictures Dorothea Lange took to make America wake up to the hardship and the hope. Fat City makes the place look no better in the ’70s, and I was there recently to hear forlorn stories about foreclosure and holding on. So strong men, capable of kidding themselves, might think of taking up boxing in Stockton.
Fat City has two of them: a kid, Ernie Munger, who is starting out, and a veteran, Billy Tully, a has-been who is likely to end up working in the fields picking fruit and vegetables or become a career drunk. They fight in Stockton and in neighboring towns, like Fresno or Bakersfield, which is a sign that they are going nowhere. Leonard wrote the script, with director John Huston looking over his shoulder, and Stark was talking about getting Marlon Brando to play Billy Tully. That could have ruined it, because Brando had no way then of not being beautiful, and Fat City doesn’t do beautiful. So Stacy Keach got the part and the young Jeff Bridges was cast as Munger. Both actors were taken aback to discover that Huston in his joking, sadistic way, expected them to do a lot of the boxing in full and medium shots. In other words, they had to take the punches thrown by real fighters who were on the movie for a small wad of cash.
So you say to yourself, this Fat City is pretty damn realistic, even if you know in your heart that “realistic” and Hollywood should not be printed on the same page—otherwise paper ignites. Still, you’re marveling at it, until Oma sits down at a bar counter and starts to talk to Billy. She is going to be what is called his “love interest” or the woman he fucks, but any part of you that feels for Billy is telling him to get out just as we all might remember we have something else to do a long way away if Oma sat down next to us. Except that she is ravishing and inescapable in her downright wildness and unpredictability. She’s in the book, but just try telling yourself that she’s working to a script. And wonder how she ever got in front of the camera.
Maybe she was twenty-seven, but—it’s no lie—she could have been seventy-two. In bars in classier places, like Las Vegas or Los Angeles, you can find women who have had Botox and liquor enough to look like worn-out balloons. Oma is overweight, over-loud, blowsy, unwashed, out-of-line, trashy, drunk, beaten up, tough but self-pitying. She’s like a plate of hot chile, half-eaten, that has gone cold on the table. She is an astonishing creation, dangerous and pathetic, endearing and loathsome. Tyrrell got nominated as best supporting actress, and lost to Eileen Heckart in Butterflies Are Free, a film I refuse to remember. She was nominated by the New York Film Critics Circle, too. Not that winning any award could have made any difference, except that she might have caused a great scene at the Oscars and had to be dragged off stage. Even in 1972, that show needed juice.
She kept on acting, though she admitted that she only worked when she had run out of money. She was in The Killer Inside Me, a lot of TV, many movies you’ve never heard of and in John Waters’ Cry Baby. A little over ten years ago, she had a rare illness—it must have come from thrombocytosis—whereby she had to have both legs amputated just below the knee. I suspect that if she had been thus afflicted in 1972, the fascinated Huston would still have cast her, and let her roam as she wished. He had a true instinct for wild animals, and I can pay the actress no higher compliment than to say that in Fat City she is not just something the cat dragged in. She is the cat.
David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder.