Corner man

James Toback turns a 25-year-old friendship into the unusually exposed Tyson.

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THE RAGING BULL AND THE BUTTERFLY Toback, center, listens in on the boxer’s confessions.

THE RAGING BULL AND THE BUTTERFLY Toback, center, listens in on the boxer’s confessions.

What is it about the art of boxing that draws out Maileresque anecdotes? In the wood-paneled chambers of the Harvard Club, James Toback, director of the absorbing Tyson, has plenty. He points out a painting of Teddy Roosevelt (“big boxer”) and moves on to his own Central Park West boyhood, one spent orchestrating encounters with his heroes. “The only thing Rocky Marciano ate on the morning of a fight was a steak at the Hotel Alcott, and I grew up in the Majestic, right down the block,” Toback, 64, recalls over brunch. “So any time Rocky was fighting at the Polo Grounds, I would be sure to camp out there. Rocky would begrudgingly give me an autograph. I remember the third or fourth time, he asked me, 'How many of these do you need, kid?’?”

Toback himself—writer of punchy scripts like Bugsy and maker of legendarily loose films like Harvey Keitel’s 1978 gangster picture, Fingers—has plenty of fight, too. Operating on the edge of the volcano for decades, Toback, a Jewish intellectual turned bad boy, relishes his notoriety. His latest project is a documentary about fallen champ Mike Tyson, and it opens up one of his more famous acquaintances for psychological scrutiny.

“At around three in the morning, Senator Gary Hart, Molly Ringwald, Robert Downey and Warren Beatty were all in my trailer,” Toback says, remembering the 1985 night shoot that led him to meet the 19-year-old rising fighter. (It’s the kind of story that only Toback can tell, and he loves it.) “Anyway, Tyson and I ended up walking through Central Park that night. We were talking about madness. I told him that when I was 19, I flipped out on LSD and lost myself. And he was obsessed with finding out what I meant by the words: 'What do you mean, insane, what do you mean, mad?’ I remember thinking, He’s so curious about this, he’s going to be vulnerable to it.”

Tyson takes us through a dizzying rise and fall, tracing the boxer’s frightening Brooklyn poverty, traumatizing fear of bullies, animalistic ring success, hundreds of millions of dollars blown, cheating, biting and prison. But it’s Toback’s idea of the refracted man—resulting in a multipaneled image broken into shards of a reflective, contradictory Tyson—that singles out his film as special. It’s their third onscreen collaboration, after Black and White and When Will I Be Loved, two unpredictable cameos that very much feel like dry runs.

“This time, I put myself out of his line of vision and just let him go,” Toback explains of their five-day shoot in a rented Hollywood Hills home. “He’s got no censorial mechanism. I wanted to allow him to ruminate and not feel like he was answering a question. I got a Mike Tyson I didn’t know.”

This may be Tyson’s biggest surprise: that famous lisp wrapping itself around ideas of weakness and insecurity. (Tyson was unavailable for comment for this article; he missed a flight and canceled two press days, along with TV appearances.) The director is quick to call his subject a philosophical soul, self-analytical to a fault, and dismisses the idea of accommodating other perspectives; his film includes no other voices. “He’s got too many voices of his own. What kind of boring movie would that be? A bunch of people whining about how they didn’t make enough money off him.”

These are protective words, not the usual ones of a documentarian. Toback has left any criticism of Tyson to the fighter himself (who does quite well) and suddenly, the key to the director’s success is clear. He articulates it for us anyway.

“Once he offered to buy me a car: 'What do you want, a Mercedes or a Rolls?’?” Toback recalls. “I said, 'I don’t want one, forget it.’ Over the years, I never took anything from him. I just liked him for being himself. I think he found that hard to believe.”

The Hollywood outsider has had his experience with mercurial personalities, and admits that impulsive behavior is what fuels his attraction to people like Tyson or Robert Downey Jr.—“the people who are at war with themselves.” Downey’s rearmored return is a tricky subject for Toback, who is pleased for his friend’s cleaned-up comeback but in a way resigned to a loss. “What is the goal? Stop taking drugs and getting in trouble? Any normal person would say, 'That’s great.’ And it is. What I miss is the shocking, inventive artist who doesn’t know what he’s going to do next.” There’s a sigh. For a moment at least, with Tyson, Toback is coming around to the idea that surviving the ring might be enough.

opens Fri 24.

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