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Norman Mailer on His Films

The Film Society of Lincoln Center fired the opening salvo into the armies of the night for a retrospective of the film work of legendary author and Id Monster, Norman Mailer, in conjunction with a two-week long Anthology Film Archives’ series The Mistress and the Muse: The Films of Norman Mailer.

What made this opening evening of the series the Mailer special was not just the sucker-punch juxtaposition of Mailer’s underground Maidstone with above-ground Tough Guys Don’t Dance, but the further enticement of a question and answer session with Mailer between films, Mailer having a lot to answer for.

First up was Mailer’s 1987 neo-noir masterwork Tough Guys Don’t Dance (), based upon Mailer’s hardboiled novel of the same name. Saddled with a tone-deaf performance by Ryan O’Neal, the film overcomes O’Neal’s obtuseness with John Bailey’s atmospheric cinematography (perfectly capturing the dank, off-season emptiness of Provincetown), the thoroughly wacky supporting performances of John Bedford Lloyd, Isabella Rossellini, Debra Sandlund, and Penn Jillette, and great scenery-chewing by Wings Hauser and Lawrence Tierney. And, of course, Mailer’s very own purple prose. The one-liners keep piling up like cars in a chain collision:

‘Any guy that marries a rich dame deserves everything he gets.’
‘My blood itself was turning mean.’
‘It’s a full moon tonight, and you know how disturbed you get when it’s a full moon.’
‘Mr. Regency and I make love fives time a night — that is why I call him Mr. Five Times.’

And, of course, the elegantly timed remark by Lawrence Tierney after Isabella Rossellini cold-bloodedly shoots a stroke victim that calls her ‘small potatoes’ — ‘I could’ve told him. Never call an Italian small-potatoes.’

Maidstone () is a psycho-dramatic mish-mash of direct cinema, home movie excess, and over inflated ego or, as Mailer called it, ‘a guerilla raid on the nature of reality.’ Mailer plays Norman T. Kingsley, a sexploitation film director, who lords it over some poor schmuck’s mansion in the Hamptons, holding court while directing a skin flick and simultaneously receiving political delegations as he courts a bid for the Presidency. Mailer lumbers around the film barking and pontificating, most of the time donning a leather cap that makes him look like a backup singer for The Clancy Brothers. Rip Torn is on hand as Kingsley’s half-brother Ray, who steals the film at the climactic moment by hauling off and physically attacking Kingsley, accusing him of being Norman Mailer. This remark leads to fisticuffs and the two he-men proceed to pound, kick, and pummel each other until Mailer finally draws blood by biting Torn’s ear. Off-camera, Mailer’s real life children scream in terror and his shocked then-wife bursts into the shot and separates the two pugilists. The film is, as a character in Maidstone describes Kingsley, ‘indigenous, original, and, some would say, a bit bizarre.’

Between bouts, Mailer appeared onstage. Appearing very frail, he tottered out to his chair with the assistance of several canes but, once seated, his physical fragility disappeared, as he described his cinematic oeuvre (‘A certain kind of bad movie has its own kind of logic’). Mailer spoke of his three underground films like a proud poppa, calling them a collection of ‘wonderful faults and startling successes.’ Wild 90 was ‘a guttural symphony.’ Beyond the Law was praised for being the most consistent (‘There is such a thing as being too daring’). Maidstone was cited by Mailer as having the most depth of all three films, but he bemoaned his personal financial loss of $300,000 in making the film, reflecting ‘I may as well have bought a yacht, taken it out into the harbor, and sunk it.’ An audience member not too enamored of Tough Guys Don’t Dance asked Mailer what was the purpose Mailer had in making the film and Mailer responded, ‘I made the movie to convince producers to give me money to make more movies.’ Tough Guys Don’t Dance was the last film Mailer directed.

The zen moment of the evening came when Jerry Stiller arose from the audience and praised Tough Guys Don’t Dance: ‘It’s a film about violence and yet there’s hardly any violence in it.’ The audience responded by awarding Mailer with a vigorous round of applause. Lucky for Mailer that Rip Torn wasn’t in the room.

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