For those who write, whether they write novels, criticism, journalism or screenplays, this morning is a sad morning. For on this cold, overcast Manhattan morning, I can see Norman Mailer‘s Brooklyn as I look out over the pearly East River estuary. But the great writer of books that were turned into movies, and the puff-chested director of Tough Guys Don’t Dance, will never return to his Brooklyn home. The Pulitzer Prize winner, one of the most thoughtful writers of our time, has died of renal failure at the age of 84 at Mt. Sinai hospital in New York City.
Whenever I saw Mailer speak, he had the energy of a boxer in the first few rounds of a fight. His pouncing wit, his vast knowledge and quick intelligence could knock out most other peers, perhaps with the exception of Gore Vidal, with whom he had a legendary feud.
Mailer’s first triumph in his career of 40 books came when he was
very young. His painfully true, chill-you-to-the-bone World War II
novel, The Naked and the Dead, was turned into a movie starring Cliff Robertson, Joey Bishop, Raymond Massey and Aldo Rey. It was gem of filmmaking.
The book for which Mailer received his second Pulitzer, The Executioner’s Song,
about killer Gary GIlmore, was turned into a well regarded TV film
starring Tommy Lee Jones and Rosanna Arquette. His lesser book, Marilyn: The Untold Story, was turned into a TV movie which garnered praise for the acting of Catherine Hicks as Monroe.
Mailer dabbled in directing four films, and his most mammoth effort was Tough Guys Don’t Dance,
a mystery rife with rich characters and starring Ryan O’Neal and
Isabella Rossellini, was also based on one of his novels. Mailer also
was an actor in such varied films as Cremaster 2 (in which he played Harry Houdini), Milos Forman’s Ragtime and Brian Cox’s short, The Obit Writer.
At some point, probably some point soon, Mailer’s life will be turned into a movie. For as the New York Times said this morning, "At different points in his life Mr. Mailer was a prodigious drinker and
drug taker, a womanizer, a devoted family man, a would-be politician
who ran for mayor of New York, a hipster existentialist, an antiwar
protester, an opponent of women’s liberation and an all-purpose feuder
and short-fused brawler, who with the slightest provocation would
happily engage in head-butting, arm-wrestling and random
punch-throwing." I also wonder why his The Naked and the Dead,
so candid, so stunning and so important even today — especially today
— hasn’t been remade by Hollywood. Perhaps now it will be.