Monday, July 20, 2009

"Fallen Champ: The Untold Story of Mike Tyson"

Tyson, director James Toback's feature-length sit-down with the disgraced former boxing champ, is fascinating in a narrow, claustrophobic way: with no new interview footage from anyone but Tyson himself (and only a few minutes of testimony from other--mainly Toback's boxing mentor and father figure Cus D'Amato--in the archival material that's included)--it seals the viewer inside the echo chamber of Tyson's head, and it's confusing and scary in there. The movie carries a charge, but that's partly because Tyson and Toback have similar attitudes and obsessions, especially regarding machismo, women and sex, and the supposed nobility of outlaw behavior, that they'd both have been better off dropping as soon as they hit puberty. (It's skin-crawling to listen to the convicted rapist Tyson babbling about how he once thought a "great man" was obliged to "conquer" a vast number of beautiful and powerful women, and how, rather than get over that, he came to realize that these succubi only suck the strength from the men in their grasp--especially since it's easy to picture Toback, sitting off-camera. nodding his hairy melon head.) Powerful as Toback's movie is as psychodrama, it's not the place to go to get a clear, thoughtful picture of Tyson's life and career. For that, viewers would be best off tracking down Fallen Champ: The Untold Story of Mike Tyson, a documentary made by Barbara Kopple (whose other credits range from the classic 1976 Harlan County, USA and its 1990 follow-up American Dream to the more recent Dixie Chicks doc Shut Up & Sing) for NBC TV in 1993. The film, which first aired while Tyson was serving his prison sentence, won Kopple the Directors' Guild Award for "Best Directorial Achievement in Documentary" of the year. It was released on videocassette but hasn't made it to DVD.

Tyson never knew his father, and the most he has to say about his mother (who died when he was sixteen) in Toback's film is that she was "promiscuous." Kopple found some folks who remember him as a kid in his old Brownsville neighborhood, but most of the interview subjects here who knew him when he was young entered his life when he was in juvenile detention. (One of them, his caseworker, Ernestine Coleman, later saw him on TV talking about his eagerness to do permanent physical injury to his opponents in the ring and sent him a message, imploring him to become "a man, not an animal.") It was while he was in juvie that Tyson met a counselor named Bobby Stewart, who he begged to teach him to box. Stewart told him he'd consider it if Tyson could do a good enough job of mending his ways to prove that he might be worth the trouble, and was surprised when Tyson did such a thorough job of it that he moved up a reading level. After teaching Tyson some of the ropes, Stewart turned him over to Cus D'Amato, a lovably deranged boxing enthusiast who ran a sort of halfway house cum sparring academy for wayward boys. D'Amato, who in archive footage looks like Lawrence Tierney's good twin, is described affectionately by one witness as "a cuckoo bird", but he knew how to put his stamp on fighters--his previous padwas had included Jose Torres (who had a memorable cameo in Toback's Exposed) and Floyd Patterson--and there are a lot of people who think he was the first human being who ever made Mike Tyson feel loved.

"I'm not a creator," D'Amato can be seen telling an interviewer. "What I do is discover and uncover. And when I uncover, the boys discover qualities in themselves that they didn't know they had." The quality that Mike Tyson once had that Fallen Champ uncovers is the ability to charm. Not the dubious, high-pressure charm of the brassy big-time player that he developed when he was on top of the world and taking style tips from such questionable role models as Donald Trump and Don King, but the boyish, secretly girl-shy charm of an overgrown kid who has no idea how to "be a man" but who, for a while there, was reveling in becoming the best at something and didn't have to worry too much about anything bigger. The years between 1982, when Tyson won the Silver Medal at the Junior Olympic Games, and 1985, when he made his professional debut eight months before D'Amato's death, might have been the only time in Tyson's life when he was able to have fun. Before, he'd felt alone in a dangerous environment, and felt that he had to turn to crime to support himself; once the rapid rise to the top of the world began, he felt that he had to keep the wheels turning so that the millions he was making for himself, and others, didn't disappear overnight. Watching him in the footage from that brief window when he didn't feel as if he were carrying the weight of the world, when he could celebrate a victory in the ring by bouncing around happily and jumping on the ropes, you're painfully aware of how much pressure he must have felt just about every other minute of his life.

At the same time, he was developing some scary attitudes at just the point where those who saw him as the golden goose might not be inclined to risk alienating his affections by urging him to re-examine them. A woman boxing trainer recalls that young Mike, who was too shy to ask girls to dance for fear of being rejected, once told her excitedly that he'd finally figured out the solution: you just walked up to a girl, grabbed her hand, and pulled her onto the dance floor without giving her the chance to say no. One figure close to Tyson in this period was the trainer Teddy Atlas, who's seen telling a reporter that Mike has a "weak" personality and then hastens to clarify that he means Mike is "easily misled. He needs love, he needs confidence...somebody to be with him."

Unfortunately, Teddy fell out with Tyson, big-time--a gun was involved--in a dispute over what the trainer saw as Tyson's unhealthy attitude towards women. In the end, D'Amato gave Atlas his walking papers. After D'Amato died, Tyson was managed by a team that included an old associate named Jimmy Jacobs, but Jacobs himself died in 1988, just at a point when Tyson needed sound counsel more than ever. (He had just married Robin Givens, and Don King was moving in for the kill.) Jacobs's death effectively cut Tyson's last tie to someone in his inner circle who had known him before he was a major commercial property. It isn't long before Tyson is seen demanding of the reporters at a press conference, "Are you here because you like me or because I make a lot of cash?" The fact that he could even think of putting that question to that particular gathering of lost souls tells you just how much growing up he still needed to do. (With the arrival of Givens, the media's attitude towards Tyson becomes insulting on a fresh new level. Kopple includes a clip of a sportscaster asking the blushing bride how "a woman who went to Sarah Lawrence and Harvard Medical School winds up falling in love with a guy who graduated from the school of hard knocks." Givens proceeds to top him by telling him that she and this fatherless son of an absentee mother have "a lot in common--like traditional families!")

The last third of Kopple's film deals with examining what happened between Tyson and Desiree Washington, who Toback, in his own movie, is content to write off as, in Tyson's words, "that wretched swine of a woman." Kopple uses the journalist Sonja Steptoe to provide a running narrative of the events that transpired after Tyson and Washington's first (public) meeting, interweaving it with comments from a cross section of African-American women, the women's studies professor Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, and Alan Dershowitz (who, slime all but oozing visibly from his pores, complains that by objecting to Tyson's treatment of her, Washington broke the sacred "rule of the groupies", adding that the "rule", which seems to be that male celebrities can do anything they want to women who agree to meet them late at night "is tragic, and I wish it didn't exist," but that since it does exist, it must be honored for the protection of our male celebrity population). There are also interviews with Tyson's bodyguard and driver, and provide hair-raising examples of what kind of enlightened brain trust Tyson had to turn to in the absence of D'Amato and Jacobs (sample proverb: "Women said that Mike grabbed them, but I can't grab you unless you're within reach!") and a clip of Louis Farrakhan, leader of an organization that advertises its commitment to protecting the honor of black woman, entertains the audience at a "Free Mike Tyson" gathering by viciously mocking the idea that any woman who would agree to be alone with Tyson wasn't asking for whatever she got. It all amounts to a clear-eyed, wide-ranging, and very dispiriting documentary essay on the state of the dialogue about race and sex in this country at a very low point, but Kopple doesn't lose the specific human dimension of it: at the end, she brings in Donald Washington, Desiree's father, a self-confessed Tyson "fight fan" whose composure crumbles before the camera as he describes hugging his daughter and feeling that he'd lost a part of her that he was afraid might never be coming back. Of course, Kopple's movie, unlike Toback's, ends with Tyson still in prison, leaving it a matter of conjecture whether he would ever fight again. It was impossible to know at the time that, by cutting his story off at that point, she was doing him a kindness.

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