Mike Tyson documentary packs powerful punch

James Toback film offers new perspective on the controversial boxer

All of those Tysons appear in Toback's film, as do quite a few others, including the doting father of four (two from his second marriage to Monica Steele, sister of Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele). Aside from the valedictory montage of Tyson vanquishing one challenger after another for his heavyweight crown, rarely in Tyson does he seem as happy and at peace as he does in some fleeting home video footage of him playing the paterfamilias he never had. It is one of the few moments when Tyson seems to find calm within his ever-present chaos.

The Tyson who shows up at Green Valley Ranch seems yet another apparition. There is an existential sadness about him now that is partly the inevitability of a fighter who no longer fights, but also the Dostoyevskian disappointment of a man consumed by the thought that all of his achievements may have been for naught. "My whole life has been a waste—I've been a failure," he told a reporter in 2005, eight days before the McBride fight. Not for nothing did Toback name the Tyson production outfit "Fyodor Productions."

Toback has flown in from New York for the day, and when Tyson greets him with a warm embrace, it's obvious that the 64-year-old filmmaker is one of the many surrogate fathers to whom Tyson has attached himself through the years, including D'Amato, manager Jim Jacobs, and later Don King. Their friendship apparently runs deep, which is understandable: Like his latest subject, Toback is a self-professed extremist—a former compulsive gambler, drinker, and womanizer for whom life at or anywhere near the middle has rarely held much attraction. Both men are a long way from fighting shape—Tyson still fit but not boxing fit, Toback an image of almost Wellesian girth and grandeur. Both say they never expected they'd live to see 40. Toback, whose credits include Two Girls and a Guy and the Oscar-nominated screenplay for Bugsy, first encountered Tyson in 1986, while directing the Robert Downey Jr.-Molly Ringwald romantic comedy The Pick-Up Artist. In a meeting of the minds only a Hollywood film shoot could accommodate, Tyson was invited to the set by photographer and boxing enthusiast Brian Hamill on a day that also found executive producer Warren Beatty and Democratic presidential hopeful Gary Hart milling about.

Two extremists: Tyson and director James Toback
Kevin Scanlon
Two extremists: Tyson and director James Toback

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The Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival begins April 16. This week, City Pages takes an in-depth look at one of the films in the festival, a fascinating documentary on former boxer Mike Tyson. Next week we will present our annual guide to MSPIFF, including profiles of Minnesota filmmakers and reviews of many of the films.

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In some respects, the seeds for Tyson were sown later that night, when shooting wrapped and Tyson joined Toback for a predawn stroll through Central Park. "We talked about boxing and sex and madness," says the famously uncensored director, who regaled the eager young fighter with stories of his own youthful boxing exploits and of chance meetings with Dempsey, Marciano, and Sugar Ray Robinson. Specifically, they talked about the time that Toback, then a 19-year-old Harvard undergrad, consumed a single, high-test dose of LSD and tripped for eight straight days—events that would later inspire his 2001 film, Harvard Man.

"I told him about my LSD experience, and I remember feeling this tremendous sense of connection—a very smart, curious, interesting guy," says Toback. "He had the seeds of...well, let's say he was so curious about what it meant to go crazy, what did the word mean. Not many people had asked that. My LSD experience at that point was 21 years earlier. Over the years, I referred to it to a fairly large number of people. I don't think anybody had ever asked me, 'What do you mean when you say you experienced madness?' And as I tried to answer the question, I realized how unusual it was and how significant it was that he seemed so eager for me to explain it to him. I ultimately ended by saying that the only way to know it is to experience it—everything else is just going to sound like words."

Of that initial conversation, Tyson says, "I've been interviewed by people, I've met people willing to be my friend, I've met people who found me intriguing, but nobody has ever opened up that Pandora's box. Anybody else would think: If you ask Mike this, Mike is going to be upset, or Mike is going to approach this situation in a way that we don't want to particularly deal with right now. I mean, he just came out and asked these questions and unlocked a bunch of things that were always in my mind, but I would never approach people with them or comment on them. When he came to me on that level, I elaborated with him, and said I understand that way of thinking."

After going their separate ways, the two men stayed in contact, though they wouldn't talk again at length until more than a decade later, in a chance encounter at the City Grill restaurant in New York. The year was 1998 and Tyson, then still on probation from his rape conviction, told the director that it was while doing time, particularly in solitary confinement, that he, too, had come to know madness firsthand.

"Once you've experienced madness, it separates you in some fundamental way from everybody else who hasn't," says Toback. "By definition, it is almost another form of humanity, or of inhumanity. The only analogy I can make is the way some of the astronauts who have gone to the moon talk about the seismic change that took place in their perspective as a result of looking at the earth from the moon—and I think it might be even more extreme than that."

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