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Best of Boston 2009

Interview: James Toback

Director James Toback tackles legendary boxing champ Tyson in a new documentary
By PETER KEOUGH  |  April 29, 2009

VIDEO: Peter Keough interviews James Toback on Tyson

Review: Tyson. By Peter Keough.
In a way, James Toback is as daunting a figure in the film world as the subject of his documentary Tyson is in the ring. Tales have proliferated for three decades of his epic, sometimes feckless, womanizing, drug taking, drinking, and gambling.

As far as that last goes, however, he's done his most reckless gambling on the screen. Beginning with his strange, critically acclaimed debut, Fingers (1978), he's repeatedly shot the moon in features that have sometimes hit the jackpot of genius — my favorite being his harrowing, hilarious Two Girls and a Guy (1997) — and sometimes crapped out completely, like the ludicrously pretentious, aptly titled Exposed (1983).

When it comes to self-indulgence and pathological behavior, however, Toback meets his match in Mike Tyson, the notorious heavyweight champion and his friend of 23 years. This is the second time Toback has filmed Tyson; the first was in Black and White (1999), when Robert Downey Jr. played a gay man hitting on Tyson, who was playing himself. Nobody told Tyson it was an act. The result is worth watching.

As it happens, I discussed this and Tyson with Toback at the Liberty Hotel, which used to be the Charles Street Jail.

You know this used to be a jail, right?
I do know that, and I have to say you don't know anyone more paranoid about prison than I am. Particularly after seeing Tyson talk about prison, which I think is among the side benefits of this movie, because it's a cautionary tale about spending a single day in prison. Because you think, "If Mike Tyson had that reaction to being in prison, how would I fare?"

Downey, meanwhile, was just out of rehab when you cast the two of them inBlack and White in that infamous scene.
Yes. Right. One out of rehab, the other out of jail.

You're kind of playing with fire when you do that sort of thing.
I like to. You know, I think particularly in a movie, you get some interesting effects when you have people when they're sane but have just been through an ordeal. And I think that that's what I was trying to do, and I've said about Downey that I don't know that he could ever do the kind of work he did in Two Girls and a Guy with the sort of smily fame and success that's coming to him now. I don't think it has ever served anyone well in terms of art or talent, although it's nice to have money and be famous and have everybody cater to you and say nice things.

This extremism is a common bond between you and Mike Tyson. When did you decide to pursue this movie?
I was shooting, not the famous scene [in Black and White] where Downey hits on Mike and then Mike smacks him and chokes him and slams him on the ground and then Brooke Shields hits on him and discombobulates him, but after that in the gym, when he's talking about being strip-searched and humiliated by prison guards to Power of Wu-Tang Clan, who was asking advice on whether to murder Allen Houston's character, who was about to rat on him and have him put in jail. And Mike says both "Yes, you should kill him" and "No, you shouldn't." He contradicts himself. And the way he talks meditatively and with a kind of Whitman-esque, paradoxical, double-direction inconsistency — I thought, "This Mike Tyson could be stretched into a very fascinating portrait." At the end of shooting that day, I said, "Why don't we do a whole movie of that sort?" Then he said, "Whenever you're ready, I'm ready."

At a time when around half of high-school students surveyed say that Rihanna "deserved" to get beaten up by Chris Brown, how do you think Mike's denunciations of Robin Givens and Desiree Washington in this film are going to play?
It's such an incendiary subject. I was shocked, by the way, at that statistic. I mean, it's one of the rare cases where what I would have predicted was so far off from what happened that it makes me feel completely out of it. Once you get into subjects where people's deepest personal responses to their own lives are involved, it's very hard to get any kind of sense of rationality, because who knows how close people are to doing things like that themselves, or are afraid of it happening or suspicious that someone's about to do it?

What do you foresee for Mike?
Mike, I think, has got a video game of some kind with Muhammad Ali that I'm sure people will get interested in. Eventually, I think he should work with kids who have backgrounds similar to his, because he'd be great with them. They'd look up to him.

Related: Ring master, Punch out!, Starving Socks, More more >
  Topics: Features , Boxing, Brooke Shields, Chris Brown (Singer),  More more >
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