One on One
Published April 22, 2009
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Tyson, James Toback’s new film (out Friday) about the former heavyweight champ, is that there’s only one interview subject: Mike Tyson. Naturally, some people will have a problem with that. But Toback insists he had to have cthe ontroversial knockout king in his own words. “Once you open up the forum to anyone else, it’s diluted,” the filmmaker says. “It’s like if you want a self-portrait of Gauguin, but before you’re finished you ask someone who knew him when he was a stockbroker to just do his ear, and then you ask Van Gogh to paint his nose. After awhile, you just have a hodgepodge.”
Toback adds that when it comes to Tyson, it’s almost impossible to get unbiased commentary. “Everybody who talks about Tyson who knew him has a very definite agenda. In many cases it’s people who are extremely unhappy that they weren’t brought along in his life when he became successful.” Of course, Toback (who has known Tyson for 20 years and insists his friend never committed the rape he served three years in jail for) isn’t exactly a neutral observer. By that same token, though, his subject never would have revealed this much of himself to a different filmmaker. (Tyson “never again trusted anyone” after being locked up, he says in the film.) Toback explains he “did not want just a kind of rational exchange” with Tyson. “I kind of planted myself off-camera and made sure that he didn’t see me at all. The idea was sort of psychoanalytic—not to ask questions, but just to set off a monologue and let the unconscious come out.”
Creative sound editing—a soft hum of overlapping, seemingly disjointed snippets of Tyson-talk that accompanies split-screen images—adds to the sense that what we’re witnessing is a guy with a fragmented mind trying to make sense of himself. “The movie probably gives more of a consistency than is there most of the time, but you see enough in the film of contradictory impulses—of blaming himself, of justifying himself, of feeling that he’s hopeful and feeling despair,” Toback says. There’s already a cacophony of competing voices in Tyson’s head. Why introduce even more?