Norman Mailer Chews Rip Torn's Ear Off

As Lincoln Center hosts a retrospective celebrating the work of Norman Mailer starting this Sunday, the cinematic efforts of the Village Voice co-founder are being reconsidered again. What about this vicious clash, between Norman Mailer and his co-star Rip Torn, that was the culmination of the filming of Mailer's "Maidstone" in 1970? Is it staged, authentic or something in between?

The blood is real. Yet, cameras were there to capture it on film. Either way, what a great fight. Torn comes at Mailer with a hammer saying in a calm, creepy zombie voice "I don't want to kill Mailer. But I must kill Kingsley..."

Mailer chomps Torn's ear, drawing blood, decades before Mike Tyson did it to Evander Holyfield. At the fight's conclusion, Mailer tells his concerned wife "I'm not hurt. He's hurt worse than I am."

So is it real? Carl Rollyson considers that question in this week's Voice.

It had always been his ambition to write the Great American Novel, but by the late '60s, Mailer was already sensing that film was a medium over which he could have total control. To be in command not only of the words but of the means of production, so to speak; to craft, as in 1970's Maidstone, a story that traded on his own political ambitions—Mailer plays Norman T. Kingsley, a film director running for president—was the ultimate ego trip. Better yet, the notoriously rocky Hamptons shoot culminated in co-star Rip Torn, inspired by the assassination attempt on Kingsley's life depicted in the film, taking a hammer to Mailer's head—prompting Mailer/Kingsley to savagely bite Torn's ear.

Not that Mailer had planned this denouement. Not exactly. He had, however, created an atmosphere of paranoia and disgust on his movie set that prompted Torn—who took his art very seriously indeed—to assault Mailer as a fraud who had no sense of structure. In the event, Torn and Mailer provided some of the most authentic moments ever recorded on film.

Gonna be saying that one for a while....

"I don't want to kill Mailer. But I must kill Kingsley..."

"I don't want to kill Mailer. But I must kill Kingsley..."

"I don't want to kill Mailer. But I must kill Kingsley..."

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