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Toback's "Tyson": Iron Mike, the short, fat, pushed-around little kid

Mike Tyson and James Toback at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival.

Mike Tyson is philosophical. Thoughtful. Self-critical. Vulnerable. There are times when you feel sympathy for the Baddest Man on the Planet. There are times when him.

These are things James Toback reveals in his new documentary "Tyson," which presents the heavyweight champion in a new light. This is the man who knocked out his opponents in his first 19 pro fights, 12 of them in the first round.

"I think he has never escaped from the sense that he is a short, fat, pushed-around kid and that everyone is aware of it and ready to bully him again," Toback told me. "Fear is the word that comes up most of all. He keeps saying, I was afraid, I was so afraid, I was afraid of this, I was afraid of that. I’ve never heard anyone talk about fear so much as a defining reality of his consciousness.

"He dealt with fear by first admitting it, and then deciding he was gonna fortify himself against anyone who’s gonna exploit it by becoming homicidally enraged. Managing your rage so you can literally destroy the person who’s trying to exploit his fear seems to be the whole center of his life and personality."

Toback and Tyson were born to meet each other and make this extraordinary film. Tyson you know about, or think you do. Toback is a wild child of modern American movies, willing to confess the most alarming details about himself. Both men have records of rampaging promiscuity. Tyson is proud he has recently been faithful to one woman for four months, Toback once inspired a four page Spy magazine fold-out chart chronicling his approaches, pitches and histories with women during a single year--and those were only the woman the magazine found out about. He was married once, to Consuelo Sarah Churchill Vanderbilt Russell, daughter of Lady Sarah Churchill, about whom he has not said one word to me.

Toback and Tyson have been engaged in a dialogue for more than 20 years over the Meaning of it All.

"The turning point in our relationship came on the first night we met," Toback said. "We walked through Central Park and we talked about many things, including my LSD flip-out and what madness was, which he couldn’t quite understand, not having experienced it."

But after his prison sentence for rape, Tyson told Toback, "When I was in solitary confinement about 19 months into my incarceration, I was sitting alone in the corner of my cell and all of a sudden I said to myself, 'This is what Toback was talking about that night when he was describing madness; I am now insane.'

"He had snapped," Toback said, "and the fascinating thing to me was that the first thing he thought about when the madness clicked in was our conversation 12 years ago. I think he sort of goes back and forth with it. I mean, unlike me, he didn’t get an intravenous antidote from the guy who synthesized LSD in Switzerland in 1938 at Sanders Laboratory. And without that, I would have been dead."

That's James Toback for you. He tells you about Tyson going mad in solitary and tops it with a story about himself. I first met him in 1974, when he was 30 and had written the screenplay for the great James Caan film "The Gambler." He was already famous within a small world. He came from blue blood; his mother, Selma Judith Toback, president of the League of Women Voters, moderated debates on NBC. His father Irwin was a vice president of Dreyfuss. James had graduated summer cum laude from Harvard, then headed down as fast as he could because of a gambling addiction, to which he added women, drugs, alcohol, food and a restless creativity.

He was nominated for his screenplay for "Bugsy." His debut as a director was with Harvey Keitel's brilliant performance in "Fingers" (1978). He made the (toned down) autobiographical film "The Pick-Up Artist" (1987) and six other features; the most recent, "When Will I Be Loved" (2004), with Neve Campbell, received four stars from me. In that film, and in "Black and White" (1999), Tyson played small supporting roles. But the Toback film that most suggests "Tyson" is his documentary, "The Big Bang" (1989), in which he asks people to explain their ideas of life, death and the universe.

That's also really what he's asking Iron Mike. "Tyson's mind is endlessly analytical and confessional," he said. "His primary subject of philosophical analysis is himself and his perceptions of the world, but he doesn’t take any of them at face-value; he’s always scrutinizing them. He does it with other people too. He starts with the concrete and goes to the general.

"For instance, he was fascinated when Joe Frazier did a mike check and instead of counting down, five, four, three, two, one, he said, smoking Joe Frazier will shock and amaze you, he’ll defeat Ali, he’ll beat Ali, he’s great than Ali ever was. And Mike said, 'can you believe how pathetic that after all this time, his only identity is his relationship with Ali? That’s what gives him a place on earth. And the reason is, that Ali took away his social standing. Joe Frazier had a place in the world and Muhammad Ali altered it completely and Frazier’s never been able to accept that. He doesn't understand how Ali made his identity permanently something else and he can’t adjust to it, he can’t forgive him, he can’t forget it. It’s still eating away at him.”

Toback's approach was not the usual Q&A interview. He sat off camera behind Tyson and let him talk: "I didn’t really question him. I raised subjects. I thought that this voice behind him triggering thoughts, stimulating the unconscious, would be better than specific questions that would tend to limit his scope of answering. I started the first day by asking him to talk about his earliest memories. That was it. For 40 minutes we just let two cameras run even though there were long gaps of silence, which I didn’t mind at all because of expressive face.

"One of the things that enabled him to open up was that he knew he was talking to someone who would understand everything he was saying and not take it in the wrong way or exploit it. Although he was shocked at some of the things he said. When he first saw it, he said 'it’s like a Greek tragedy. The only problem is, I’m the subject.' He was watching himself almost as if not remembering he said those things, because he was in a quasi-psychoanalysis. I was standing behind him and I was just a kind of voice and he was sitting there on the couch allowing all of his repressed voices to come out."

As he was editing the film, Toback said, he began to suspect it might appeal to women.

"So I picked women who said they didn't like boxing or Mike Tyson. I’d say, “come to the editing room and if after five minutes you want leave, I’ll give you $100. But if you stay, I won’t give you anything and you have to tell me what you thought about the movie when it’s over.”

"Every single woman, 35 out of 35, stayed, and in every case were moved to tears, were fascinated by how it held them. I realized something special was going on. I told Mike, and he said, 'Who are these women? Save their numbers for me'.”

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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