The Films of Norman Mailer

They’re like a punch in the face.

Norman Mailer and Rip Torn in Maidstone, 1970.
Norman Mailer and Rip Torn in Maidstone, 1970

Supreme Mix Productions via YouTube.

The greatest scene in Norman Mailer’s filmmaking career is one he almost didn’t survive. It comes near the end of Maidstone, which is by some distance the best of the four movies he directed. Most of the movie’s cast had been dismissed at this point, and its story, in which Mailer plays a presidential candidate threatened with assassination, concluded. But Rip Torn, playing the wild-eyed brother of Mailer’s presidential candidate, was still under the film’s spell. And so, as the cameras rolled, Torn, or his character, or some sticky fusion thereof, attempted to fulfill the movie’s prophecy by taking a hammer to Mailer’s scalp, and, when that failed to produce the desired result, attempted to throttle him. Mailer responded by sinking his teeth into Torn’s ear, and the two continued their messy, desperate brawl until Mailer’s soon-to-be-ex-wife, Beverly Bentley, broke it up, her screams mixing with the shrieks of their terrified children.

Like its companions in Eclipse’s new two-disc release Maidstone and Other Films, Maidstone was conceived less as a self-contained film than an experiment in human behavior—or, less charitably, an acting exercise. Wild 90 (1968) is largely a three-hander, with Mailer and two compatriots playing Mafiosi confined to a small apartment; Beyond the Law, also released in 1968, is comprised of police interrogations taking place in a precinct house on the same night.

Maidstone, which Mailer also shot in 1968 but did not complete until 1970, is a relatively sprawling affair by comparison, shot over five days on several East Hampton estates and featuring a cast of dozens headed by—who else—Mailer himself, as art-house pornographer and potential presidential candidate Norman T. Kingsley. The cast was a mixture of professionals, amateurs, and what had at that point become Mailer’s ad hoc repertory company; one of the joys of having the films released as a set is the way strange faces—editor Bernard “Buzz” Farbar, professional boxer José Torres—become familiar as they turn up in different roles. As with all three films in the Eclipse set, the actors worked without a script, without a net, and often, without any idea what they were doing. So when Maidstone’s story, such as it was, had been filmed, Mailer gathered his team on the lawn of Gardiner’s Island to debrief. He explained:

What we’ve done in the last five days is we’ve made a movie by a brand-new process. I’m going to use a metaphor here: Most movies are made as a corporation product … What we did is we made a movie as a military operation. … The whole idea in a military operation is that you get a certain amount of force moving, and then you move with it, and you discover what the reality of your attack is by attacking. So what we’ve been doing the last five days is making an attack on the nature of reality.

Mailer’s movies certainly don’t lack for force. Watching them is indeed like being attacked, and it’s Mailer doing the attacking. Wild 90, which according to its closing credits was created “from a script which did not ever necessarily exist,” is a crash course in inventive profanity, with Mailer reeling off lines like, “I could fuck a girl with my ears better than you can with your triple prick.” It’s clear he’s having a grand old time tossing off lines with his friends Buzz Farbar and Mickey Knox; at times, he doesn’t even bother to suppress his get-a-load-of-this grin. But even if the amateurish sound hadn’t rendered a good chunk of the dialogue unintelligible—a situation that led D.A Pennebaker, a documentary veteran who served as Mailer’s cameraman and played a small role as a police officer, to shelve the movie—it would still be almost unwatchable. (The Eclipse disc’s subtitles are invaluable, although I kept picturing the poor employee whose job it was to determine whether Mailer had just used the word cunt six times in a row or seven.)

Wild 90 comes alive only once, during Mailer’s playful confrontation with José Torres, a Puerto Rican light heavyweight champion. Torres, not surprisingly, plays a boxer, brought to the gangster’s hidey-hole to be evaluated as a potential investment. Mailer’s character, known only as the Prince, decides to bust his chops, perhaps out of boredom or stir-craziness. Mailer is ostensibly in character—you can tell by his unidentifiable accent, which sounds like Jimmy Cagney sped up to 45 rpm—but Torres isn’t acting, and after a while, Mailer isn’t, either. It will surprise no one familiar with “The White Negro” that Mailer has contrived to have a large, powerful black man stand still and take ostensibly good-natured abuse from him, forcibly putting the two on the same plane. “You got nostrils …” the Prince observes. “They’re like a jet plane.” But distasteful as the encounter is, it nonetheless feels real, in a way the rest of the wholly contrived film does not. (James Toback, who covered the making of Maidstone as a journalist, used the same underlying principle—white actor has unpredictable, deeply uncomfortable encounter with black boxer—for his film Black and White, for a scene in which Robert Downey, Jr. propositions Mike Tyson and for a brief, electric instant, seems in danger of having his head removed from his body.)

Beyond the Law—the full title is Beyond the Law, alias Bust 80, alias Gibraltar, Burke and Pope, alias Copping the Whip, or A Fantasy of the Angels, the Downtrodden and the Dispossessed, otherwise known as The Velvet Hand and the Iron Tongue—is a vast step up in terms of sheer competency, which is to say it’s no longer physically painful to look at the screen. This time, Mailer tries an Irish accent on for size—also an improvement, at least insofar as it’s recognizable as such—as a police lieutenant who presides over an evening’s worth of interrogations in a Manhattan precinct. Each encounter between detective and suspect is meant to illustrate Mailer’s belief that every individual contains the seed of both cop and crook. Intercutting several small scenes gives the movie a sense of pace, but Mailer’s desire to build the film out of unstructured improvisations undermines his stated aim to dismantle the honeyed Hollywood version of law and order. (The Pat O’Brien brogue doesn’t help either.) His axiomatic faith in spur-of-the-moment creation neglects the fact that when people, especially untrained actors, are asked to create something outside the realm of their own experience, they inevitably fall back on cliché.

Although not far separated in time, Maidstone seems to emanate from another universe, or at least another Norman Mailer. Rather than playing dress-up, Mailer has realized that his public persona—literary lion, provocateur, rampant egotist, emphatic misogynist—is an asset. He is, finally, the center of his own universe, a moveable feast that functions as a film set, an orgy, and a presidential campaign kick-off all in one. Norman Kingsley Mailer, meet Norman T. Kingsley.

An art-house filmmaker often referred to as “the American Buñuel,” Norman Kingsley is the artist as ringleader. By way of auditioning actresses for a remake of Belle de Jour, Kingsley subjects them to a variety of verbal abuse and sexual harassment, groping and fondling them and putting on a Southern accent to inform an African-American actress that “good acting comes out of tyranny—in a sense, slavery.” That these sadistic spectacles are obviously unrehearsed blurs the line between improvisational acting and real-life happening. Is that Mailer abusing the actresses, or is it Kingsley? Is he satirizing his own worst tendencies or simply indulging them?

Although it’s not a documentary in a traditional sense, Maidstone embodies what the French ethnographic filmmaker meant when he coined the term cinéma vérité: “The truth of cinema, and not the cinema of truth.” Rather than simply turn on a camera and hope that the result will resemble what we think of as reality, Mailer stages fictional provocations that reveal the true nature of the people enacting them—most thoroughly, and cruelly, his own.

Like Mailer’s best writing, Maidstone is both a celebration of his own ego and a relentless attack on it; if any reality is being assaulted, it’s his. The movie bankrupted him, occasioning a 16-year gap before his fourth and final film as a director, Tough Guys Don’t Dance, a loopy, overcooked noir about a man whose wife frames him for murder. In a piece on the film’s 20th anniversary, The New Yorker’s Mark Singer talked to sound designer Leslie Shatz, who recalled that Mailer insisted on creating his own effects for the sound of a fist hitting flesh rather than drawing from a prerecorded catalogue. Rather than laying into a side of beef, Mailer opted to punch himself, so that what viewers of Tough Guys Don’t Dance hear is, quite literally, a man beating himself up. Norman Kingsley enjoys going a few rounds as well, but he cautions his sparring partner not to hit him too hard. “I’d like to punch the crazies out of you,” his opponent says. “That’s my talent,” says Norman T. Kingsley. “That’s my talent.”