MovieMakers: 'Tyson' Director James Toback

Director James Toback, left, said former boxer Mike Tyson talked often of being afraid.
Director James Toback, left, said former boxer Mike Tyson talked often of being afraid. (By Charles Sykes -- Associated Press)
By Ellen McCarthy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 8, 2009

"Endlessly self-reflective. Meditative. Self-analytical. And intellectually restless."

Kind of a surprise that those words are used to describe Mike Tyson, no? Well, that is exactly how his documentarian describes the former heavyweight champion.

"He is the best example I know of the arrogance of assumption," says director James Toback, whose provocative new film, "Tyson," elicited standing ovations at the Cannes and Sundance film festivals. "He's an emblem of the . . . great phrase 'Don't try to understand me too quickly.' "

The Tyson of Toback's film bears little resemblance to the ferocious, ear-biting, convicted rapist who has become a ridiculed icon of temper and instability.

This Mike Tyson, now 42, seems vulnerable, sad and more than a little scared.

"What shocked me was his constant reference to how afraid he was all the time," Toback says over a cheeseburger and fries at the Ritz-Carlton in Georgetown. Throughout the filming it came up again and again: " 'I was afraid of this.' 'I was constantly afraid.' 'I was so afraid.' 'I had fear here.' It's as if fear was his natural state of mind and that the way he chose to think of life was as a response to fear."

In truth, "documentary" may not be the best word to describe this movie. It feels more like a professionally edited video diary, with Tyson walking audiences through the strange story of his life. He is the guide, the interpreter and the narrator -- reliable or not.

Toback met Tyson almost 25 years ago on the set of his 1987 film, "The Pick-up Artist." The boxer, there with friends, was 19 then and not yet a world champion. "He was a wide-eyed innocent, believe it or not -- or at least he appeared to me to be that," Toback recalls.

The two became friends and kept up with each other over the years. Toback even cast Tyson in a now-famous cameo opposite Robert Downey Jr. in his 1999 film "Black and White."

His appearance in that film sparked an idea for Toback.

"There's something about the poetic, uncensored, almost mesmerizing presence of Tyson . . . that made me feel this Tyson should be expanded into a movie," the director says. Presented with the idea, the boxer seemed eager to participate.

But the project didn't materialize; one or the other's schedule always posed a conflict.

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