Leonard Gardner is best known for his absence. His debut novel Fat City was released in 1969 to rapturous praise and a National Book Award nomination, but he never published again. He worked sparingly in Hollywood, adapting Fat City into a screenplay for director John Huston in 1972, and then, much less famously, expanded one of his short stories for Valentino Returns (1989). His influence on a generation of writers (including Denis Johnson) was enormous, his output slim. His writing has a lucidity of loserdom, what it feels like to get your head caved in by a right cross or top an onion while nursing a hangover. It’s instructive to look at his two screenplays for how they so faithfully adapt his hyper-local literature to the screen – Fat City condenses while Valentino Returns expands, but both retain the flavorful detail of his snake bit hometown of Stockton, CA.
Fat City is one of the all-time feel-bad novels, opening with the somnambulant line, “He lived in the Hotel Coma”. Its main character Billy Tully remains in a near-unconscious state throughout, an ex-boxer yearning for another fight in between alcoholic stupors. In a rare moment of clarity, while working out at a dingy YMCA, he spars with a callow teen named Ernie Munger. Munger peppers the lumpen Tully with jabs until Tully pulls a calf muscle. In a desperate ploy to save face, Tully tells him, “Well, you got it, kid. I mean, nobody used to hit me. They couldn’t hit me. They’d punch, I wouldn’t be there. You ought to start fighting.” It’s not that Tully is human wreckage who any kid could tag, no, Munger must be a real talent. This face-saving bit of buttering up sends Munger on Tully’s old path, getting tenderized for pocket change. The two men go their separate ways – Tully into the arms of a fellow boozehound named Oma, Munger onto the small town boxing circuit to make money for his pregnant girlfriend and soon-to-be wife. Both end up working as farmhands for extra money, but Tully is heading for the gutter while Munger is scrounging up a working class living for his wife and kid. Their dreams will be indefinitely deferred.
The film adaptation hews miraculously close to the novel, as Gardner worked closely with director John Huston on the screenplay, who had boxed a little growing up and was open to a more realistic portrayal of lower level fighters. Also able to shoot on location in Gardner’s hometown of Stockton, CA, it gives real-life images to Gardner’s textured prose. In John Huston’s autobiography An Open Book he describes the neighborhood where they shot, where they also cast a number of non-professional actors:
"We shot most of the picture on Stockton’s Skid Row. It’s now a thing of the past; they’ve wiped it out. I wonder where all the poor devils who inhabited it have gone. They have to be somewhere. There were crummy little hotels; gaps between buildings like missing teeth; people…standing around or sitting on orange crates; little gambling halls where they played for nickels and dimes. Many of the signs were in Chinese because the area had a large Chinese population. The police were very gentle with the derelicts. As long as they stayed within the sharply defined boundaries of the neighborhood, they could sleep in doorways, wine bottle in hand; if they wandered out, the police simply shooed them back. They were completely harmless, defeated men."
The film opens with a montage of Stockton, displaying a Mission house, a burnt-down building, a bum smoothing his hair in front of a Kaopectate sign, while the diverse locals go about the business of daily life.
In a recent interview with The Paris Review, Gardner recalled the writing process with Huston:
"Before I started to write it, he invited me to come over to his place in Ireland for a couple of weeks for a discussion about how it was going to go. He was a funny guy. He trusted me, I think, because we didn’t talk all day about the script. We talked maybe a half an hour. Then he wanted to paint. He was always painting."
The structure and style of the movie is nearly identical to that of the book, including the refusal to psychologize or explain the actions of the characters – they remain indefinably themselves. The movie goes further in this direction, cutting out the thin backstories from the book (the torch Tully carries for his ex-wife, the thumbnail portrait of Munger’s resentful mother). Instead the move remains stubbornly outside, allowing its characters to remain as hazy as the dusty glow of Conrad Hall’s cinematography.
In an unusual move, Gardner was on set for the entire filming process, and gave Huston advice where he saw fit. Luckily there wasn’t much to improve upon, including the picture-perfect casting of relative unknowns Stacy Keach as Tully, Jeff Bridges as Munger, and Susan Tyrell as Oma. Gardner had reservations about the latter’s theatrical interpretation of the part, but eventually came around:
*"I felt lucky. They all had a very different approach to it. Jeff Bridges was naturally an underplayer and Susan Tyrrell was an over-the-top actress. She actually had to be brought down. She’d been a stage actress. I don’t know whether she’d ever been in a movie before. I think Huston saw her in some stage play, and when you’re on stage in a good-sized theater, you can really project your voice. She sort of started that role over the top and I kept waiting for Huston to quiet her down. I finally said something to John. That maybe she was overplaying some of the scenes. Maybe he thought so, too, I’m not saying it was my idea. Maybe I just corroborated what he was thinking.
Later, I saw her walking on the hotel grounds one day and she said, Oh! They want me to bring it down a little bit. And I said, you know, that would be okay. And she said, I don’t care what they want! I’ll play Oma if I have to grow a cock! She never really brought it down all that much. I look at it now and think that it’s a brilliant performance. She had the guts to play women that went over the top very frequently. And there are certainly people like that. It took me a while to learn to live with what she was doing. But she was sensational."*
Stacy Keach’s bent nose and scarred lip are perfect accents to his snarlingly slurred speech, the words of a punch drunk fighter who doesn’t know he’s been licked. The last scene in the movie finds Tully, who has hit the skids again, run into Munger, now working at a gas station and occasionally still fighting. It’s the only scene in the movie not from the book. Munger would rather go home to his wife and kid, but reluctantly joins him at a greasy spoon for some burnt coffee. Tully’s face is covered in filth, Munger has a broken nose, held together with tape. Tully looks at the weathered old waiter and says, “Before you get rolling, your life makes a beeline for the drain.” Munger makes a movement to leave, and Tully implores him, “Stick around, talk awhile.” But they have nothing to say, so they stare at the wall. Roll credits.
It’s as desolate a closing sequence as there is in the American cinema, and a more concise way of closing the film than the extended hitchhiking sojourn that ends the book. In any case it remains a model version of how to adapt a book into a movie, both faithful to the book as well as honoring the ways in which the images of Stockton could replace Gardner’s prose.
Location plays a similarly large role in his other credited screenplay, 1989’s Valentino Returns (he did uncredited work on The Milagro Beanfield War). Valentino Returns was based on his 1965 short story Christ Has Returned to Earth and Preaches Here Nightly, originally published in The Paris Review. It begins in Tracy, California, a suburban town about 20 miles south of Stockton. In the opening line Gardner describes it as a “small, flat, hot, treeless, asphalted valley town.” It’s one where the only available thrills are available through cruising in your car – mining the same kind of ‘50s car culture nostalgia as American Graffiti, filmed eight years after this story was published. In turn, the Valentino Returns movie would lard the soundtrack with ‘50s hits (“Blue Monday”, “All I Have to Do Is Dream”) in a failed attempt to recapture American Graffiti’s box office magic.
The story follows nineteen-year-old Ernest Grubb as he drives his newly leased pink Cadillac from Tracy to Stockton, in search of two mythical and insatiable divorcees who his friend Harry claims to be waiting for them. He has scrawled “Valentino Returns” on the rear fender in an egregious bit of false advertising. Their failure to get laid is inevitable as it is amusing, as they get sidetracked by a flat tire, a revival tent preacher (hence the title) and some jealous motorcycle gang members. It’s a middle-class world alien to the impoverished lives of Billy Tully and Ernie Munger, even though the events take place mere miles away from each other.
In adapting it to film for first-time (and only time) director Peter Hoffman, Gardner had to greatly fill out the town of Tracy that surrounds Ernest – here renamed Wayne GIbbs (played with wooden sincerity by Barry Tubb). The movie shifts between Wayne’s fruitless attempts to get a date with his parents’ mounting marital troubles. His dad Sonny (Frederic Forrest) is a mover and drinker, introduced caterwauling “Nevertheless (I’m in Love With You)” at a bar. His wife Patricia (Veronica Cartwright) has enough of his carousing and leaves a note for her son: “'Why don't you get some Chinese food for dinner. I've left your father. Mom.''
While his home life is falling apart Wayne is lured by the promise of the divorcees, though he is still smarting from seeing pretty farm girl Sylvia (Jenny Wright) making out with another guy at a party. He sees her again when Wayne and Harry (Seth Isler) stop at the revival tent to laugh at the preacher (Jerry Hardin). After a promise that Jesus would appear that night, a biker (Miguel Ferrer) drives in, takes off his helmet, and claims to be the savior. Sylvia confesses her illicit sins to this leather-jacketed joker before he is booted out. Before the movie is over Wayne has to save Sylvia from her bible-thumping daddy, weasel his way out of a prostitution solicitation arrest, and somehow get his mom and dad to reconcile. It’s far more of a traditional arc than the go-nowhere Fat City, but Valentino Returns still identifiably takes place in the Leonard Gardner extended universe.
Wayne works as a farmhand, driving a tractor, rustling livestock and judiciously avoiding the cockfighting ring on paydays. He also attends a boxing match with his dad, who can’t help but give advice to a ring girl working her first day. In one of his self-lacerating boasts Sonny says after the match, “Ever hear of the candlelight kid? One blow and I was out.” Most fascinatingly though, Gardner himself appears in the film as family friend Lyle, who carries a torch for Patricia. While not an electric screen presence, he’s effectively low key and lends an appealing aw shucks sincerity to the part. But most of all it’s set in his homeland of central California, though not shot with as much hazy glory as Fat City. Valentino Returns looks comparatively flat.
There is not much information available on producer and director Peter Hoffman, who funded and made the film himself. The film had an early champion in John Pierson, who in Spike, Mike Slackers & Dykes writes how he recommended it for inclusion in the 1988 Sundance Film Festival, but Hoffman could never finish post-production: “He’s spent years editing his feature, spending millions of dollars of family money in the process. Occasionally he’d call me up to let me know that he’d trimmed a few frames from the opening shot and thought that it changed the entire film. Once invited to Sundance, I assumed he’d settle down and meet the deadline. But Hoffman was so possessed that he couldn’t stop tinkering. He pulled out–a second cancellation.” Gardner remembers it purely as a business venture: “I wrote another movie called Valentino Returns. I made pretty good money on that.” It was much needed cash because Gardner had little work until David Milch hired him to write for NYPD Blue, a surprising but welcome gig for a guy who didn’t own a television.
But Valentino Returns is more than just a paycheck, it’s a revealing peek into a different side of Leonard Gardner’s central California of the mind, not just the terminal point for dead enders, but a site of adolescent adventure and romance. Originally written when Gardner was 32, it still has a view of the future, a future that ends up circling the drain in Fat City.