Premieres & Events

Norman Mailer, Bold Amateur

"I was not a cultivated filmmaker": Author Norman Mailer onstage at the Walter Reade Theater following Sunday's screening of Tough Guys Don't Dance (Photo: STV)

By S.T. VanAirsdale

Norman Mailer stopped by the Walter Reade Theater on Sunday for the launch of The Mistress and the Muse, a retrospective of his directorial, documentary and TV work of the last four decades running at Lincoln Center, the Paley Center and Anthology Film Archives through Aug. 2. Pretty much everything is here with the exception of the legendary author/raconteur's vaulted foray into porn Beyond the Law (Blue) ("I keep it hidden; it may never be shown for 50 years," he told the audience); the program began with a double feature of his freakish 1987 noir entry Tough Guys Don't Dance and his 1970 improv triumph Maidstone.

"I was not a cultivated filmmaker," Mailer said between the films in a discussion with Film Society of Lincoln Center associate programmer Kent Jones, Mailer archivist Michael Lennon and film curator Michael Chaiken (who also interviewed Mailer in this month's issue of Film Comment). "I was quite the opposite. I was a bold amateur who had developed a certain confidence that if you bash into things with enough competence -- if you have enough skills of another sort -- you can translate a good many of them surprisingly. So I was ready to tackle directing a film by myself, even though my preparation was hardly proper for directing films."

Tough Guys indeed inherited its filmmaker's muscular fearlessness; sleazy drug double-crossers and drawling femmes fatale unleash a careening absurdity ("Your knife... is in... my dog!") into Mailer's Provincetown locales. In the middle is ex-con Tim Madden (Ryan O'Neal) and sinister sheriff Alvin Luther Regency (Wings Hauser), bad guy and worse guy, respectively, but the former an essentially innocent man with a knack for being in the wrong places at the wrong times. Two severed heads, one sterilized ex (Isabella Rossellini) and perhaps the most ironic use of "Pomp and Circumstance" in film history -- nay, in human history -- later, Mailer sends off his audience and ultimately his film career with haunted, literal closure.

The 84-year-old Mailer walked onto the theater's stage Sunday leaning heavily on two canes, defying his frailty by walking to the farthest chair to take his seat. It was a striking metaphor for his films, which take the long way around reason, emotion and aesthetics before settling into a singular harmony. The route to illumination wound even farther:

ON THE OPPORTUNITY TO MAKE TOUGH GUYS: "I'd been talking to Tom Luddy, who's a marvelous producer who worked with Francis Ford Coppola for many years in many functions. We were friends. ... Tom called back and said, 'Menachem Golan will agree to a two picture deal in which he will fund Tough Guys Don't Dance if you make King Lear with Jean-Luc Godard directing. And he'll let you make Tough Guys Don't Dance.' I knew Godard was going to destroy any script I wrote for King Lear; he hated scripts. He considered them his personal antagonist. But it was worth it. So I wrote a script of King Lear, which I called Don Learo. Godard and I got along 24 hours before we went our separate ways. I will say, for the record, he may be the second or third most awful man I've met in my life. And that's saying a lot."

ON ANOTHER OF THE WORST MAN HE'D EVER MET: "I sat across the table from him. He had about the stature of a man who's a publicity director for a Midwest corporation of medium size. There were about 12 of us at the table. I never met his eyes once even though I was sitting this far away from him. (Holds palms three feet apart) I realized that this was a man who had learned very early in life to never have a conversation with anyone who could do you no good. So our eyes never met, because he sensed that if our eyes met, a good question would pop into my head. Anyway, that person -- number two -- is Ronald Reagan."

ON DIRECTING: "I thought, 'If Tough Guys does well, I'll be able to make films the rest of my life.' And I loved it, because when you're a film director, it's equivalent to being a director in a war where no blood is shed. You have all the pleasures and embodiments of being a general. As a man who's been married six times, I could confess that in all six marriages, I had one predictable but repeated failure, which would be that in each, I remember saying to each wife at a given moment, 'Darling, I think I'd love to see a little curl over here.' (Holds finger to forehead) And they'd say, 'Oh, get lost! You don't know what you're saying.' That happened over and over in each marriage. Then I was making Tough Guys. The hairdresser brought in Isabella Rossellini, and I said, 'You know, I think I'd like to see a little spit curl here on Isabella's forehead.' And the hairdresser said, 'Yessir.' So I wanted to be a director, yes."

ON EDITING: "I spent some of the happiest years of my life editing. In fact, I think I got a free psychoanalysis out of it. I'd recommend that anyone who doesn't want to see a psychoanalyst because they think they're really too special to talk about themselves to a supposedly dispassionate and well-paid stranger should take a film editing course. The movies they shot themselves (and in which) they figure? What I learned, among other things, is why I'm so annoying and irritating. I'd be watching my films and I'd realize that I was bullying my way into scenes, overtaking what other people were going to say -- that I was really more disagreeable than I had ever dreamed of. And I regained a kind of calm and mental health that was better than when I started."

"(My filmmaking) started with the idea that half the people alive, at least, are actors. But to become a professional actor takes years of disciplining oneself in all sorts of laborious and dedicated ways. Because what you have to learn to do is take a line of dialogues that someone else had written for you and translate it in your throat into something you were just thinking of that moment. And to that in such a way that people believed it was your line -- it came out of you. It seemed to me that took a decade at least, whereas in life, we do that all the time. We're always speaking naturally, particularly when we're engaged in something that extends us just a little bit. If we're trying to convince somebody who doesn't believe us, we're absolutely behind our words -- those of us with the actor or the salesman or the propagandist or the mood-changer in them. We work at it.

"So at a certain moment I thought, 'If you could film ordinary people who are witty and could think on their feet -- people you could talk to in difficult situations -- if you take such people and put them in a movie situation that was intense enough so they weren't thinking, "Oh, gee, I can't act. What am I doing here? Who am I?" And they could be themselves in this situation? Then you could get marvelous acting without all the religious preciosities of actors who'd spent 10 years learning their craft.' Anyone who tries to become a director with professional actors discovers the same few words which come to one sentence: Professional actors are pain in the ass."

"I got together almost everything I had -- about $300,000, which was a lot more then than it is now. I'd have done better if I'd bought a yacht, took it out in the harbor, opened up the petcocks and sunk it. We opened at the Whitney and drew record crowds. The Whitney used to have 500 people a day come; they had a hundred-seat theater, and they had five showings of the movie. Usually they only had two, but for Maidstone they had five. And we were loaded every single performance. At the end of two weeks 7,000 people had seen Maidstone. It was an absolute record for the Whitney film program. And on the face of that I thought, 'I've got a hit here!' So I took my last $25,000 and rented a theater on 57th Street and we opened it. And we set a new record: The theater's worst box office in its history. I think something like seven people came on Saturday night. I was bemoaning all this and a friend said, 'Norman, the answer's simple: There are only 7,000 people who want to see Maidstone. And they all saw it at the Whitney.' "

"I wasn't close to Warhol or Cassavetes. I thought Warhol was onto the oncoming American diseases and that's why everyone's so fascinated with him. In other words, Warhol knew more about the boredom and the emptiness of likfe than almost anyone else around. His movie Kitchen was extraordinary, but it was awful -- absolutely awful. It was a torture to sit there and watch it. On the other hand, I felt like a hundred years form now, anthropologists and sociologists, if they're still around, will be watching this movie and say, 'Oh, yes -- that's why there was all that trouble in the '60s in America. It's because life was so absolutely unforgiving and monotonous and sterile and dull and repetitive.' And that was him.

"Cassavetes, I always felt betrayed. He was very good at what he did, but he betrayed improvisation. My notion of improvisation is that you start with improvisation and you go on from there. You don't say, 'We'll improvise this scene,' and then in the next scene the two of you will have made up that you're doing this, because that's no longer improvisation. Then you are working in the improvisation to arrive at the desired result. Whereas what I wanted to do was make films that were organic -- that grew out of themselves. If two people got into a terrible quarrel, it wasn't necessarily to be resolved or not resolved. We were going to take it from there, and then the next time they got together, they would take it from where they were going to take it. Obviously, I'm a highly prejudiced commentator, but I thought my movies were more interesting than theirs. I still think that."

Posted at July 23, 2007 7:24 AM

Comments (1)

I was the star of Beyond The Law Blue. The "porn" was nothing but a nude scene in which I provoked Mailer and he reacted with filmic violence. His sister commented upon viewing the film that she had never seeen that side of Norman. Because of Mailer's Dire Ambivalencee toward me and godknowswhatother shame the film created in him, he decided to secrete it. Dumb. Not that it is even a good piece of film making-- it is not. But it IS revelatory about Mailer's state of desire.

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