The Guest From Hell

Savoring Norman Mailer’s legendary appearance on The Dick Cavett Show.

Norman Mailer

What’s your take on Cassavetes? Here’s mine: The filmmaker is one of three avant-gardists who readied America for reality television and the cult of pop personality, and his highly wrought psychodramas are an essential template for every loosely scripted, boozily delivered Real World screaming match. You will surely agree that one of his co-forefathers is Andy Warhol, whose Screen Tests made one giant leap for voyeurism and whose Sleep perfected the art of nothing happening. Do you need convincing that the other is Norman Mailer? If so, catch the tail end of The Mistress and the Muse: The Films of Norman Mailer, a film and video retrospective running in New York through Aug. 9. Among its raw pleasures, the series documents how Mailer’s quest to become the King of All Novelists—the man with the biggest books, the tallest platform, and the manliest existential pain—led him to play jack, joker, and knave in many a medium.

You probably missed Maidstone, the third and last of the underground films Mailer directed. A.O. Scott went justifiably out of his head, two weeks ago, for its final scene, writing that it “captures something essential in Mr. Mailer—his reckless bravado, his willingness to court ridiculousness and the loss of control. Very few artists today, in any medium, exhibit this kind of crazy passion.” Long story short: In this scene, actor Rip Torn makes a choice—an artistic choice and a bold one—to hit Mailer in the skull with a hammer. The play of feeling on Mailer’s face after this happens is beyond compare. First, there is anger—appropriately, as he is trying to bite off Torn’s ear. Then, still angry, he hears out Torn’s explanation of his motives, while also trying to look tough and not too angry. Then, while also trying to quiet his wife and kids, he’s trying to wipe the smirk off his blood-streaked face. He’s smirking because he knows exactly how fabulous this footage is.

Mailer’s small-screen efforts are only slightly less exciting. According to biographer Mary Dearborn, Mailer launched his studies of television around the time he was writing Deer Park—”He had begun watching heavily in 1954, the same year in which he discovered pot, and he often watched into the small hours of the morning”—and his combination of wit, unpredictability, and readiness to rumble have made him a captivating talk-show guest.

The video Assorted Appearances 1968-2004, now playing at the Paley Center for Media in connection with the festival, amounts to a greatest-hits collection. Here we find Mailer all but flirting with William F. Buckley on Firing Line: “For years, I’ve felt that one of the problems with this country is that it’s insane.” With a flip of the calendar, he’s chatting with chain-smoking Johnny Carson about Nixon in China and tribal warfare in New Guinea, and, by the ‘90s, graciously condescending to appear opposite Bill Maher. But Mailer’s most legendary advertisement for himself aired live on Dec. 2, 1971, and the Paley Center billed it, last week, as “Sparring With Vidal on The Dick Cavett Show.” Charlie Rose’s producers included a famous part of the action near the half-hour mark of this clip, but to properly appreciate Mailer’s crude righteousness and semi-cultivated berserk aura, you’ve got to size up the full text.

Should these 75 minutes of Cavett ever be adapted into one-act stage play, the part of the host should go to Jude Law, but only on the condition that he delicately synthesizes his I Heart Huckabees oiliness and his Talented Mr. Ripley hauteur, while also bringing in elements of Conan O’Brien’s humble clubbability. Cavett, being a fancy lad, made his loud studio audience wait two beats before he made his entrance—electric seconds of empty spotlight—then, lump in his very tan throat, flubbed his lead-in: “I wish I shared your enthusiasm.” He then did a self-conscious bit of literary parody that involved an A-minus impersonation of Buckley. He then used a synonym for “advertising spot” too precious to repeat.

After those messages, the camera came up on Cavett playing audience Q&A: “Are there any other questions? … Do I dye my hair? No. I tint my body a little to set it off.” Then Vidal (to be played by Frank Langella on-stage) came out. His eyebrows were a touch lugubrious, but his name-dropping was excellent. “I had dinner with Philip Roth the other night, and … ” He drew out the word “Roth” in an exquisite manner—it’s like he was saying the s in España, or rolling a th. Not to be left out of the impersonation game, Vidal then gave a first-rate Eleanor Roosevelt, the kind of powerful performance grounded in deep research. He told the one about the time he caught her arranging gladioluses in the toilet bowl.

Next came Janet Flanner. Cavett and Gore treated her like royalty, and she gave them no reason not to, combining aspects of Helen Thomas, Diana Vreeland, and the queen mother. I like Dame Maggie Smith for the part. Cavett cravenly admitted that he’d always thought she was a man because the byline on her “Paris Journal” column in TheNew Yorker was Genet. She explained that she’s just a reporter: “There’s no gender in that. No sex, either. None.” Cavett, almost literally kneeling now, inelegantly set up her anecdote about finding Ernest Hemingway in the bathtub, and she did the radio edit, and her Papa imitation was exquisitely subtle.

Cavett then appeared on another part of the set to shill Domino sugar, which really is great for home-baked cookies at holiday time. His imitative Cookie Monster rumble (“Cooookies!!!“) was rather too cute. For a segue, he actually said, “My next guest is a tough cookie.” Reasoning, in all probability, that Mailer wouldn’t hit a man wearing glasses, Vidal then put his glasses on.

The only hitch with my proposed stage adaptation is Mailer’s inimitability. Either he’d have to play himself, or you’d have to cast someone far out—Johnny Depp or Tilda Swinton or Shaq or someone—in the role. Mailer swaggered out imitating a fighter’s coiled ease, a superstar in a dark suit and black leather boots, angel-headed under Bob Dylan curls. He’d come from a cocktail party and boasted he’d been drinking, and he also looked pretty baked. He had head-butted Vidal in the green room. He bounced right into a performance that was better than some of his journalism and all of his novels. Everything he learned from studying Ali (rhythm and rope-a-dope) and Chaplin (grace and grandiosity) and Marilyn (eyelash-batting) went to use.

Mailer failed to shake Gore’s hand and pursed his lips when explaining why: “I guess I forget.” Honestly besotted with Flanner—”I’m a student of television, and I’m overcome with how good you are”—he apologized to her in advance for breaking the charming mood, going on to call Gore a liar and hypocrite and “absolutely without character or moral foundation or even intellectual substance.”

At issue was Gore’s New York Review of Books piece on Mailer’s Prisoner of Sex, that pot of crock about feminism. The review had said that Mailer’s thoughts on sex “read like three days of menstrual flow,” but Mailer as much as agreed with that. No, he had found it unreasonable that Gore had likened him to Charles Manson and that it was low of him to mention the thing with Adele and the penknife—”We all know that I stabbed my wife many years ago”—and then he went gunning. He didn’t turn everyone against him at once, instead gradually modulating his courtliness with Flanner (“Angel, it’s my turn now”) and deepening his casual disdain for Cavett (“Why don’t you look at your question sheet and ask your question?”). When the audience booed, he started yelling back—his accent, formerly professorial-patrician, slipping around from Texas sheriff to white Negro. He turned a swank salon into a churning saloon. For a coup de grace, Mailer called out Gore for lifting a bon mot from the previous week’s Times Book Review. (For evidence that Mailer’s point, however loutishly made, was a sharp one, note that the offending passage does not appear in Vidal’s essay as reprinted in United States.)

Flanner seemed to appreciate Mailer’s verve and quickness, despite being wholly put off by the arguing and insults: “Very odd! You act as if you’re the only people here.”

To which Mailer said, “That’s the art of television, isn’t it?”

We came back from the last break to see that Cavett had given Flanner a colorful bag of home-baked cookies made with Domino sugar. Clutching them in one gloved hand, she sighed, “My only solace,” and the set went dark, and Mailer trotted off stage left.