Norman Mailer’s Very Strange Directing Career

First and foremost, Norman Mailer was a writer. Sometimes he was dead-on brilliant, other times his writing felt like a masturbatory exercise in male egotism, a tendency that has ended up hurting his literary legacy far more than it has helped it. Mailer was not just a writer, but also a host of other things, including, as Michelle Dean discussed yesterday, a man prone to bursts of violence against his spouses. He was an activist, an aspiring politician, one of the founders of The Village Voice, and in what might have been his strangest attempt to diversify, Norman Mailer was a filmmaker.

For the new double-biography A Double Life, Mailer archivist and chair of the The Mailer Review editorial board J. Michael Lennon had unprecedented access to the writer’s documents. As is the case with biographies penned by people who have a stake in preserving the legacy of the subject they’re writing about, A Double Life — while one of the more comprehensive looks at the controversial writer — tends to gloss over Mailer’s many failings. Take the films: “He imagined himself about to join the company of the period’s great directors,” Lennon writes. “Jean-Luc Godard, Federico Fellini, and Michelangelo Antonioni, among them.” At some point in the late 1960s, according to Lennon, “Film had become his passion.”

Whether or not the Pulitzer Prize winner’s preoccupation film explains his spotty 1970s (although 1975’s The Fight and 1979’s The Executioner’s Song both stood out as highlights), the collected filmography of Norman Mailer serves as an interesting glimpse into the mind of a complicated writer whose motives for just about everything are still difficult to understand. 

1970’s Maidstone is Mailer’s most infamous film, and the best one he made. It stands out in large part thanks to the above “unplanned” scene, wherein Mailer grapples with Rip Torn, who supposedly improvised his part by hitting Mailer in the head with a tiny hammer, enraging him to the point where Mailer almost chews Torn’s ear off as the Mailer family cries and screams for the brawling to stop.

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In his first attempt to make a motion picture, Mailer spent $1,500 of his own money to finance Wild 90, and recruited D.A. Pennebaker as his cinematographer. The result? Renata Adler wrote in her review that the 1968 film, “relies also upon the indulgence of an audience that must be among the most fond, forgiving, ultimately patronizing and destructive of our time.”

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Following the hardboiled lives of several detectives, and set in a Manhattan police precinct and neighboring bar, Beyond the Law has been described by some as a proto-Law and Order aimed at shining a light on what it’s like to be a member of New York Police Department. Lennon writes that the author “spent nearly eight months” editing the 1968 film, and points out that this was “four times as long as he had spent writing Armies of the Night.”

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Mailer gave up on making films throughout the 1970s, but somehow convinced producers to let him direct the adaption of his 1984 novel, Tough Guys Don’t Dance, starring Isabella Rossellini in the prime of her career and Penn Jillette as a reverend named Big Stoop. The 1987 film might have been the best of Mailer’s filmography, if only it didn’t feel like something Jason Schwartzman’s character on Rushmore would direct if given the chance.

But you can’t deny that the trailer was pretty hilarious.