Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Sunday, February 23, 2014


As I've written here before, I have been a fan of Norman Mailer's writing for a long, long time. I didn't always agree with him--or "enjoy" his books in the sense that they were fun to read--but I learned a lot from him, admired his tenacity and even his self-confidence. He made Muhammad Ali look humble.

I started reading him in the mid-1960s and pretty much didn't stop until he died (Nov. 10, 2007, a day before my birthday). His last couple of books (On God, 2007; The Castle in the Forest, also 2007, a novel about the young Hitler) lay on one of my piles-to-be-read for quite a few years--five or six in fact. I think I didn't want to read them, not because the subjects didn't interest me (they did) but because once I'd read them, there'd be no more Mailer to read. And that was just too grim a thought to deal with.

But then I accepted an assignment from the Cleveland Plain Dealer to review Michael Lennon's new biography (2013), and I knew it was time to let Mailer rest. And I read his two final books before reading Lennon's long and richly detailed book about his friend.

Mailer had also fancied himself a filmmaker and had shot several in sort of an ad hoc way--Wild 90 and Beyond the Law in 1968, Maidstone in 1970, and Tough Guys Don't Dance in 1987. After I read and reviewed Lennon's book, I decided I'd take a look at one of the films, and last week Tough Guys showed up from Netflix. And the other night (Friday) Joyce and slipped the DVD into the player and watched.

Interlude: I'd read Tough Guys Don't Dance, source of Mailer's screenplay, back when he published the novel in 1984. (In the New York Times reviewer Dennis Donoghue wrote about the book's "wretched inadequacy.") I just had to dig it out of a massive pile of other books ...  My little note in the front shows that I read it in Aug. 1984. Inside the front cover I find a folded article from People, 5 October 1987, a piece by Alan Richman called "No Longer Such a Tough Guy, Norman Mailer Frets Over His Shaky Career as a Filmmaker." I find no marginalia, but that's no surprise: I'd stopped writing in books that I thought might one day be worth something. And Mailer, I think, is pretty collectible. I just checked ABE: unsigned 1st printings in good shape (of Tough Guys) are worth about $70--not a fortune, but the cover price is $16.95, so that's not bad. Looking at the novel, I see the ending is a bit different from the film's ...

Anyway, as I said, on Friday night we watched the film ...

All 110 awful minutes of it. I stayed with it only because it was Mailer, only because of my gratitude for his.
books and essays. If the film had been by Mailer Norman, I would have shut it down in the first ten minutes and streamed an episode of Doc Martin instead. The star was Ryan O'Neal (yes, he of Love Story, etc.), and he was ... awful. Mailer must not have had anyone working continuity, for O'Neal kept looking like a different person. (Yes, the time periods were different--but I'm talking about within time periods.) The women, also generally terrible, though Isabella Rossellini (his love interest from long ago--and in the present) had her moments. The two other principal women--Debra Stipe and Frances Fisher--were very bad--although, to be fair, Mailer did not exactly have a "way with women." He married multiple times, was a serial adulterer, stabbed one of his wives (not fatally). And his portrayal of women in this film is beyond retro all the way to prehistoric--a term many feminists during his lifetime used for Mailer, as well.

The only character I found mildly convincing was Wings Hauser, who played a corrupt local cop with gleeful menace.

Mailer has some lovely footage of Provincetown, MA, where much (all) was filmed (it's where he lived), but he couldn't seem to let the camera alone. It behaved like a spoiled brat who wants always to be noticed--even when whatever it is is not about him/her. (Ever write a sentence with is, is ... first time for me, I think). The camera was like some narcissistic dork swooping around at someone else's wedding reception taking selfies. Mailer's camera moving in, out, side to side, finding angles that say Look at me! Notice me!

So ... Norman Mailer. Fine writer. Sucky filmmaker. I wish he'd written a few more books, to tell you the truth. You and I could make better films ... Below, some scenes from Tough Guys Don't Dance.

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