Documentary screening in Un Certain Regard

The time was right.

Filmmaker James Toback had been close with Mike Tyson ever since the fighter broke into boxing, even before he became a star in the ring at age 18. Finally, 23 years later, Toback is at Cannes for the first time with “Tyson,” the filmmaker’s second doc, which is screening in Un Certain Regard on May 16.

The writer-director knew the onetime heavyweight champ more intimately than most. Anthony Michael Hall first brought Tyson to the set of Toback’s 1987 “The Pick-Up Artist.” After running into Tyson in New York soon after the boxer emerged from prison, the filmmaker put him in a scene with Robert Downey in 2000’s “Black and White.”

Over soft drinks on the Majestic terrace in Cannes, the filmmaker says of Tyson: “It’s a classic tragic story of someone who rose to unimaginable heights and destroyed himself through hubris, overreaching and recklessness. He sank to the bottom, resurrected himself and reached an even higher pitch of fame and iconic status around the world. He’s an extremist personality.”

The two men have spent long hours — and many latenight phone calls — philosophizing about life and death, about radical behavior and madness, a subject they both know something about.

“He’s very intelligent, very curious, but he had not expressed it yet,” Toback says. “The self is a tenuous artificial construct. It is grounded in the endlessly mysterious chemistry of that 3½-pound object called the brain, but at any moment, this social convention we make to each other to say we exist and are sane and OK is a very fragile entity which we call sanity.”

Toback, who has been sober since shooting 1983’s “Exposed,” knew there was a lot going on behind the image of the out-of-control, raging, tattooed primitive who spent three years in an Indiana penitentiary for rape and bit off part of Evander Holyfield’s ear — not once but twice.

After Tyson emerged from prison and made his second comeback, only to plummet from grace again — a victim of an extreme lifestyle in pursuit of money, sex and drugs — he entered rehab.

That’s when Toback pounced. The facility, figuring the talks would be cathartic, allowed the filmmaker to do a week of interviews on HD with the then-40-year-old newly sober ex-fighter. “I never thought I’d reach this age,” Tyson says in the film. “It’s a miracle.”

Toback has been a Hollywood screenwriter-for-hire on such studio pics as Warren Beatty’s “Bugsy.” And as an indie filmmaker, he has kept such recent films as “The Pick-up Artist” and “Harvard Man” low-budget in order to retain as much control as possible. He explored similar identity issues in his philosophical first doc, 1988’s “The Big Bang.” “It was saying there is a void at the core of our consciousness,” Toback says.

Toback financed “Tyson” himself. Audiences will be astonished by the polarities of grandiosity and vulnerability revealed by the fighter, who was diagnosed by then-wife Robin Givens as “manic-depressive” in a Barbara Walters interview.

“Once I’m in the ring, I’m a god, you can’t beat me,” Tyson tells Toback as he analyzes the way he once overwhelmed his opponents in the ring, like a hunter sizing up his prey. “I am the greatest fighter that ever lived,” he still boasts.

Tyson revisits his childhood as a young drug thug and his meeting with Cus d’Amato, the trainer who would be his surrogate dad. When D’Amato died, Tyson, says, “It was like I lost my whole life and didn’t know where to go from there.”

Tyson became the youngest-ever heavyweight champion of the world at age 18. He flourished, despite his bad-boy, womanizing behavior, but his personality began to show its cracks after the death of his mentor. His short-lived marriage to Givens followed, tracked by tabloids. When it comes to women, Tyson states in the film, “I want to ravish them completely.” He still denies the rape charge that sent him to prison.

Toback clearly had the time of his life making what he considers his best film, and is tickled that it’s his first Cannes entry, albeit out of competition. (Michael Moore aside, getting a docu into the competition is a rarity.) A new print of Toback’s 1978 drama “Fingers,” starring Harvey Keitel and remade as the French hit “The Beat That My Heart Skipped,” is also showing in the Cannes Classics series.

Tyson is the only person Toback interviews in the doc, but there is dramatic footage of his fights, from his pulse-pounding loss to Buster Douglas to the infamous 1997 ear-chewing bout with Holyfield.

“I bit him — I wanted to inflict as much pain as possible,” Tyson says. The second bite not only cost him the fight but a fine of $3 million. He regrets running through some $300 million to $400 million of amassed riches.

Toback did need help finishing the film, which is for sale at Cannes. He’s taken his time editing, even enlisting women who hate boxing to test the pic, and has landed a deep-pocketed investor to get him over the finish line.

When he showed “Tyson” to Keitel, the actor told him, “I came to see a movie about Mike Tyson and ended up seeing a movie about myself.”

Read more of Anne Thompson’s blog here

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