James Toback, the screenwriter of Bugsy and the writer-director of Black and White, made his reputation right out of Harvard College (Class of 1966) as a racy man of letters. He penned a notorious, Mailer-esque nonfiction book called Jim that centered as much on Jim Toback's drive to shed middle-class aspirations, angst and inhibition as it did on Jim Brown, the taboo-breaking black hero who was the book's main subject.
No project pulls together all Toback's obsessions with as much focus and intensity as Tyson, his mesmerizing documentary about the fighter who made a label like "bad-boy boxer" come off as an understatement. Under Toback's unwavering gaze, the Tyson of popular lore - the ear-biter, the rapist, the addict, the past-his-prime slugger battling for a paycheck - dissolves before your eyes. In his place stands a multifaceted, haunted hulk of a man who led an all-or-nothing life and now must make what he can of the nothing part.
"In a way, I got lucky," says Toback, a longtime New Yorker calling from a press stop in Seattle. "It was the first time that a movie came out better than I had imagined it would beforehand."
Toback thinks the movie is effective because he put Tyson into a compressed cinematic psychoanalysis.
"He was so uninhibited and open, and it all depended on a psychoanalytic set-up, with me behind him, letting his stream of consciousness flow."
In his 20s, Toback had been in therapy and psychoanalysis, "and I knew there's a world of difference between the things that one says when a psychiatrist is sitting across a table or a desk and the things one says when you're lying supine and talking to a voice behind you. [In psychoanalysis] I was actually jumping off the couch, disowning all these buried voices that were coming out of me, until I realized I believed in more of that craziness than I did in my rational thoughts."
That memory inspired this movie "because Tyson has so many voices buried in him and he's so unharnessed a personality. ... I would have found it difficult to lock him into any one train of thought or speech or behavior."
Did Tyson experience any "leap off the couch" moments? "I know the first time he saw it, he said, 'It's like a Greek tragedy; the only problem is, I'm the subject.' And the third time he saw it, at Sundance, he said at dinner afterward, 'People were always telling me they were scared of me, and I thought, why be scared of me? But watching the movie tonight, I thought, I'm scared of that guy."
Toback's mother died in March 2006, and he's told previous interviewers that he felt the need to immerse himself after her death in some intense subject matter. But did he feel particularly drawn to the character of Tyson? After all, Tyson was parentless too and lost his beloved surrogate parent, trainer-manager Cus D'Amato, before he was 20.
"I have to say," confesses Toback, "it might have been unconscious. I certainly felt, after my mother's death, a wall separating myself and anyone who had living parents. Your knowledge of the false sense of security that the life of even one parent gives you, makes it impossible to take seriously someone who has in fact a parent or two left."
Toback talked to Tyson about "the weightlessness that sets in" when your mother dies. "Although he was 15 when his mother died, when I was telling him my mother was sick, he said, 'That's the central thing, there's no question about it, that sense that you are just on your own.'"
Even when he was at his apex Tyson's admirers viewed him as part man, part child. The way Tyson tells his story, he was a hot huddle of impulses before he found an identity in the ring and an authority he could love in D'Amato.
Tyson suggests that he might have held himself together if D'Amato had lived longer. Toback thinks D'Amato would have stalled yet not prevented Tyson's deterioration, which had its roots deep in his character. D'Amato's almost monastic training system, Toback says, could function only as long as Tyson focused exclusively on triumph in the ring.
In victory, Tyson was insurmountable. "No one had a better combination of speed and power," says Toback. But in the movie, Tyson's fall dominates his story. "When you have a rise and fall," says Toback, "the fall is always more powerful in the memory because it has erased the other reality."
Toback tried to let the convicted rapist and ear-biter speak for himself. Although he didn't put it in the movie, the filmmaker says Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz reviewed the transcript of Tyson's rape trial and declared that "in 40 years of reading transcripts and observing criminal cases, it was the single most obvious case of railroading and one of the biggest travesties of justice."
Toback illustrates the footage of Tyson's second fight with Evander Holyfield so that you see how Holyfield's head-butting triggered Tyson's rage and led him to bite Holyfield's ears. It's so flagrant, Toback says, "You almost feel as if it's too bad Holyfield didn't have a third ear to bite."
What tortures Tyson today is that "he also can't stand the idea of living in the past." He has "removed himself from boxing, but he doesn't know where to go."
Of course, athletes aren't the only celebrity achievers to face that void. The French film star Alain Delon, after seeing Tyson, told Toback, "It's not just about a prizefighter. It's really a movie about fame and how it overwhelms your life, and how impossible life can be after you've had tremendous fame and following and it goes away. You become nothing, and you have to construct some kind of alternative to nothingness."
'Tyson' is a potent look at a fallen warrior. PAGE 3