With the triumph of books like The Armies of the Night and Miami and the Siege of Chicago—both published in 1968— Norman Mailer had begun to make good on his seemingly vain hope of effecting “a revolution in the consciousness of our time,” as he put it so extravagantly in Advertisements for Myself (1959). Why, then, turn to filmmaking, especially in low-budget, self-financed, improvisatory projects—projects featured the upcoming two week series, “The Films of Norman Mailer”—that took Mailer out of the mainstream?
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.
One of Mailer’s inspirations was surely John Cassavettes, whose film Faces (1968) received enormous critical praise for the power of its actors’ improvisational style, and for bring- ing to the screen the kind of harrowing study of social and psychological disintegration that Mailer clearly was attempting to foment in his own production. Mailer wanted to create a stark black-and-white cinema verité/faux documentary that would blur the boundaries between fact and fiction—a harbinger of what he would produce in his nonfiction novels. But in Maidstone, the best of Mailer’s filmmaking efforts, the results are, as Vincent Canby wrote in the Times at the time, a “mixed bag,” veering from tedious to terrifying.
The truth is, Mailer never understood much about acting or film, at least not in any way that translates into great cinema. He is wonderfully speculative about the celluloid personality in his essay, “A Course in Filmmaking,” and in his biography of Marilyn Monroe, but he evinces little understanding of how performances are put together. Proof positive is his embarrassing ’80s studio film, Tough Guys Don’t Dance, a Provincetown-set murder mystery that is so bad I don’t believe even a willful attempt to treat it as camp could make it enjoyable. (Curiously, Tough Guys will open the Mailer series.)
But Maidstone, police procedural Beyond the Law, and Mailer’s directorial debut Wild 90 are worth a look not only for Mailer devotees, but also for the insight they provide into the heady, insouciant ’60s. And for a great performance, don’t miss Tommy Lee Jones in Mailer’s screen adaptation of one of his own finest works, The Executioner’s Song. As for the man himself, he’ll make an appearance on opening night. Protect your ears.