Friday, November 19, 2010

FIGHTING TOMMY RILEY (2005): Manhood versus Macho Posturing

Only about a dozen semi-notable movie critics even bothered to review Fighting Tommy Riley.  The movie was released in 2005 shortly after Million Dollar Baby; the screenplay was written by its young star, J.P. Davis; Eddie O’Flaherty used this movie as his debut as Producer and Director; virtually no money was spent on promoting the movie; the movie was filmed on a tight budget; and it had as a theme a young boxer’s Platonic affection for his gay manager – all of which assured that it would fail at the box office.  Yet with what little critical reception Fighting Tommy Riley had there is something quite remarkable to note concerning the movie reviews: male critics almost unanimously gave the movie positive reviews while female writers almost all hated it.  This is particular telling with the unusual storyline.
Tommy Riley (J.P. Davis) is standing in front of a mirror in the beginning of the movie, which gives off a fractured reflection because of the mirror being cracked down the middle.  We then flash back to when boxing manager, Marty Goldberg (Eddie Jones), and promoter, Diane Stone (Diane M. Taylor), had discovered Tommy some seven months earlier.  At that time, Tommy was an angry fighter because his talent had been badly used.  Tommy’s stepfather, who did not have a clue as to how to handle the young man (other than berate him), managed Tommy while the boxer was fighting at the Olympic Trials.  During one of the bouts, Tommy was knocked down and then, rather than continue, pretended that he had injured his hand.  Tommy’s stepfather basically disowned him.  Then Tommy became a sparring partner for all sorts of mediocre fighters.  These fighters would take cheap shots at Tommy after Tommy outclassed them in the ring.  Diane has doubts about taking Tommy on, but Marty sees huge potential.
Tommy signs a contract with Marty and Diane.  Tommy’s girlfriend, Stephanie (Christina Chambers), feels disappointed with Tommy’s choice because she thought Tommy had given up all thoughts of going back to boxing, and so she moves out on him.  (This is a typical subplot for a number of boxing movies.)  Nevertheless, Tommy trains hard and manages to win some fights, and Stephanie shows interest in him again.  Now Marty does not want Tommy to be distracted (or at least that’s what he tells Tommy), so he rents out a cabin in the mountains where Tommy can train away from Stephanie.  Tommy is content with that so long as the training is beneficial.
We begin picking up on a few clues concerning Marty as the movie progresses.  Marty teaches English to high school students and has not been in the boxing business for quite some time.  He treated Diane like she was his own daughter since the time he persuaded her to get off of the drugs.  Marty used to be a professional fighter until the time that he put a hand through a window and injured some tendons.  Marty once managed another fighter with championship potential, but that fighter quickly became a has-been after being lured away by another manager.  Marty spent many a sleepless night reading books when even the sleeping pills that he took could not help him.  He was lonely and overweight and in bad health.  Still, we’re not sure exactly what is the cause of all of his problems until something occurs up at the cabin.  While giving Tommy a massage, Marty could no longer resist the temptation of making an advance.  Tommy is both startled and confused by what occurred.  Marty then feels regret and also understands that Tommy has no similar feelings towards him.  Marty knows that the right thing is to return Tommy to train in the city where Tommy can be with his Stephanie.
Now Tommy may be young and naïve, but he also has the intelligence and decency to appreciate all that Marty has done for him.  Tommy considers Marty to be the father that he has never known.  If the truth had been known, he cared for Marty even more than he cared for Stephanie.  Tommy just happens to be very heterosexual.  So through Marty’s tutelage, Tommy comes within one bout of fighting for the middleweight championship.  Unfortunately, there’s no happy ending for Marty.  The boxing community had shunned Marty since the days when he was a fighter after his sexual preference became known.  In the all male brotherhood of the boxing world, there was no way that a gay boxing manager was going to get a title fight for the boxer he trained.  Marty tried to persuade Tommy to sign-on with Bob Silver (Paul Raci), another boxing manager that had the connections to get Tommy the title shot.  Tommy refused to abandon Marty.  Marty then tried to insult Tommy as a means of getting Tommy to sign on with Silver, but Tommy saw through what Marty was trying to do.  Tommy wanted so desperately to keep Marty on as a manager that Tommy against his own inclinations offered himself to Marty.  Marty feigned outrage by this offer and wouldn’t even accept Tommy’s apology.  Marty, only foreseeing the damage that he could do to Tommy both personally and professionally, then deliberately takes a massive overdose of pills and kills himself.  Tommy then gets his title shot and we see him before the fight looking at the broken mirror.  While looking at the mirror, he sees Marty standing behind him.  Thus, Tommy is still able to go out and fight with Stephanie in the audience to cheer him on.
Fighting Tommy Riley is hardly a perfect movie.  It borrows heavily from all of the boxing clichés shown in other fight films.  The reflection in the mirror has also been used in The Champion, Rocky and Raging Bull.  Like most leading men in boxing films, Tommy is probably too good-looking to have taken the beatings he did in the ring.  Marty is the wise and crusty trainer that has already seen it all – the prototype of all boxing managers and trainers in film.  There seldom is a situation he does not have an answer for … except when it concerns himself.  Yet whatever clichés are used in individual scenes, the storyline cannot be called clichéd. This is a much more intelligently filmed drama than either Rocky or Million Dollar Baby.  The boxing scenes are much more authentic, there are no major villains within the film (nor would any villain be necessary), and the acting of J.P. Davis and especially Eddie Jones provides us with three dimensional characters rather than romanticized underdogs.  If the movie is sentimental, it is never so sentimental as to veer the characters away from their natural and tragic course.  Now that Brokeback Mountain has come out with its theme of gayness being intertwined with the story of cowboys, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that there is a movie about a boxer with a gay theme – except that Fighting Tommy Riley came out first, and that there’s a historical connection between boxing and sexual preference. 
When Benny Paret fought Emile Griffith for the welterweight championship back in 1962, rumors had been circulating that Griffith was gay.  If the rumors had ever been substantiated, it would have been the end of Griffith’s boxing career.  At the weigh-in, it is alleged that Paret referred to Griffith as a maricon (“faggot").  Whether this had anything to do with what was to come probably will never be known.  Griffith won the championship fight from Paret in the twelfth round, but only after battering Paret with eighteen straight punches that put Paret into a coma.  Paret never woke up and died ten days later.  Norman Mailer, who had been at ringside, described the scene as follows in his essay, Ten Thousand Words a Minute: “As he went down, the sound of Griffith’s punches echoed in the mind like a heavy ax in the distance chopping into a wet log.”  Now Emile Griffith was the world welterweight champion, would later win the middleweight crown, would fight in more world championship rounds than any other fighter in history, and probably received little joy from his boxing accomplishments.  When attempting to visit Paret in the hospital, it was reported as a public relations ploy.  Despite the fact that he only knocked out twelve opponents in over one hundred bouts (a miniscule amount for someone with world championship caliber), he was forever perceived as the man who killed the popular Benny Paret in the ring.  It is said that Griffith never forgave himself for what had occurred.  And, unfortunately, Griffith also paid a price for his sexual preference.  In 1992, after leaving a gay bar, Griffith was viciously assaulted and almost killed by two youth.  Since that time, Griffith has required full-time care.  At the age of seventy he suffers dementia that may have been the result of the beating he received from the two youth but more likely was the result of the punches that he took in the ring.
When boxing manager, Bob Silver, tells Tommy that a homosexual like Marty would likely never be accepted in the boxing world, he could very well have been telling the truth.  There is still the same stigma concerning homosexuality and professional sports as existed back in 1962.  When men like Mailer describe boxing in almost religious terms*, there is also a puritanical streak that comes along with it.  For a man like Marty who loved the sport and was also shunned from it, it probably truly would have come close to tearing him to pieces.  Unlike in a Million Dollar Baby, we didn’t have to fabricate a tragedy to turn the movie into a full-length feature (though the moviemakers wisely kept Fighting Tommy Riley to 109 minutes).  The emotions here – tragic and otherwise - are real both for Marty and for Tommy Riley.
So would men, who are generally perceived as being more ambivalent about the acceptance of homosexuality in our society than women, be more likely to enjoy this movie – a movie that does not shy away from making us uncomfortable?  I’m not sure.  We can hardly judge movie critics to be typical of the population in general, but that’s all I have to go with concerning this movie.  Practically no one else has even seen it.  But I will say that the movie is more honest and less campy and smug than most movies where there is a plot or subplot involving gay themes.  I think the reason some male critics did admire the movie is in part due to the magnificent job that Eddie Jones does in playing the part of Marty.  Marty is not the stereotypical gay man.  He’s believable as a boxing manager in that he knows what he is talking about when advising young men in a masculine art.  He’s also obese with a homely mug defying the stereotype perpetuated by gossip columnists that all good-looking men are gay.  Most importantly, we perceive in him a sense of decency in that – no matter what his desires may be – he ultimately respects Tommy Riley as a heterosexual male.  He wants to see Tommy succeed both as a fighter and as a man.  Sadly, that decency in the screwed up politics of the boxing world would not save him.
*  “It was of course not the religion which is called Judeo-Christian.  It was an older religion, a more primitive one – a religion of blood, a murderous and sensitive religion which mocks the efforts of the understanding to approach it, and scores the lungs of men like D.H. Lawrence, and burns the brain of men like Ernest Hemingway.”  - Norman Mailer

March 20, 2008
© Robert S. Miller 2010 

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