In a small conference room with brocade upholstery and damask wallpaper, James Toback holds forth with Jack Dempsey stories, Glenn Gould references, and Joyce Carol Oates quotes … but really he’s just waiting for Mike Tyson. He’s directed a documentary about the boxer, called Tyson, which opens later this month, and he’s chosen this vaguely Mediterranean-themed resort just outside Las Vegas to promote it. His cell phone goes off. “Yeah, we’re still waiting for Mike.” After a few “rights,” he clicks off his phone and exhales, relieved. “He’ll be here in twenty minutes.” He glances out the window, to the sunbathers at the pool. Twenty-three minutes later, Tyson, dressed in a gray pin-striped suit and pinkish shirt, enters the room. He ducks his head as he shakes hands with a “pleasure to meet you, ma’am” and settles his bulk into a small, metal-framed chair.
Tyson and Toback have been friends for twenty years. “We met on the set of The Pick-Up Artist,” Toback says, “Mike came to meet Robert Downey, and Mike and I had a very deep, serious conversation about all the things of importance: boxing, sex, love, madness, and death.” Tyson has since done cameos in Toback’s films, usually improvised. “I always said we should do one movie which is just a portrait of Mike,” Toback says. “Apart from being the greatest champion ever, he has a mind and language that is always fascinating.”
What caused Tyson to be made right now, however, was something akin to mutual desperation. “My mother had just died,” Toback explains. “[Mike and I] talked about the death of mothers and the centrality of that influence in our lives. I was in a state where I knew I was going to do something very unfortunate in the near future—I was watching myself come close to doing a bunch of things that I knew would be catastrophic. And I thought, If I don’t start making a movie immediately, I’m going to get in trouble,” he says. The two order burgers from room service.
“I was in L.A.,” Tyson says with a nod. “I wasn’t doing anything; I was in rehab, as a matter of fact.” He was in a mood to share his introspection on film. “No one could expel anything that I said, so I took that as a form of safety.” Tyson is indeed Tyson’s monologue. Aside from old footage—which displays the speed and joy of his youth (“I was a happy fighter then”), the devastating power of his prime, and the final matches, when he seemed to make fighting an act of giving up—the only voice you hear is his, as he sits in a Malibu beach house and tries to make sense of a life that sometimes seems like a Shakespearean tragedy produced by Barnum & Bailey.
“I was always afraid that I would see myself through the same eyes that other people see me,” Tyson says. He leans forward, flattening a hand on the butter-colored tablecloth. “I mean, me and my family slept in abandoned buildings full of rats.” He lets out a soft noise of disgust. “But it’s not a really big thing. It’s a form of survival in a dog-eat-world, rule of the planet or rule of the jungle. It doesn’t mean a big thing to me. But … ” As he gropes for the words to make his point, Toback watches him with an intent, patient expression, the same one that probably looked out from behind the camera.
Suddenly, Tyson breaks out into a wide grin and chuckles. “My girlfriend, you know what happened to her? She opened the cabinet the other day and a roach came out. She almost died! Died!” He shakes his head. “She was crying and screaming. I thought somebody was in there attacking her.” But he didn’t run in and squash it: “It’s just a bug. They wanna live on the planet.” He smiles, leaning forward. “But what I was saying was, I’ve slept in places where you wouldn’t take a shit at. And this roach has really traumatized her.” Suddenly he leaps to his feet, imitating her, hopping from tiptoe to tiptoe: “Oh! Pleeease! Help!”
Tyson pauses to savor the laughter and sits back down. “And this is where I come back to the realization that, um, the different lives that people live. Some people couldn’t walk in other people’s shoes, couldn’t last ten minutes in their world. It’s something that I had forgotten, but it sort of brought that substance to light, and I was like, Wow, are people that much different?”