Norman Mailer was a hero to many. He never meant shit to me. Straight-up Neanderthal, that sucker was simple and plain, fronting like a more masculine John Wayne. Though I have a soft spot in my heart for anyone with Mailer's genius for self-promotion (as seen in his seminal tome, Advertisements For Myself), I have a hard time getting past all the tough-guy posturing. Given Mailer's reputation, it's a miracle that he made it well into his 80s without dying of testosterone poisoning or meeting an undignified end wrestling an alligator or mountain lion. If Ernest Hemingway is the God of the great literary church of machismo, the great alpha-male all other two-fisted, hard-drinking wordsmiths prostrate themselves before, then Mailer is at least a minor saint, especially now that he's bare-knuckle brawling the angels up in heaven.
I always thought there was something perversely redundant about Neal Pollack's shtick. Why bother creating a larger-than-life parody of Norman Mailer when Mailer was doing such a bang-up job with that gig himself? Mailer toiled diligently to create the impression that he wrote with a half-empty whiskey bottle in one hand, a half-empty sawed-off shotgun in the other, and a dead hooker at his feet. Acolytes could be forgiven for imagining that he had gasoline and bourbon running through his veins instead of the blood of mere mortals.
I, on the other hand, do all my writing clad in a flowing lavender muumuu. And I take regular breaks to watch Oprah and my stories, steal sips from a nearby teacup full of Celestial Seasonings, and giggle girlishly whenever one of my cats does something amusing. Okay, that's not even remotely true, but if Mailer could spend his entire life and career pretending to be Mike Hammer, then I reserve the right to channel Quentin Crisp whenever the spirit moves me.
Mailer remains one of my more glaring pop-culture blind spots. So I figured I'd try to correct that by ordering Advertisements For Myself from Ama I mean, purchasing it at full price from an independent bookstore—and writing up Tough Guys Don't Dance for My Year Of Flops. The widely mocked 1987 thriller was the product of a brief epoch when beloved Israeli schlock merchants Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, the super-geniuses behind The Apple and Over The Top, tried to buy a little respectability by throwing money at famous (or at least notorious) figures, and hoping against hope that great art (or at least healthy commerce) would ensue.
So in the space of just a few magical years, Golan and Globus produced Barbet Schroeder's Charles Bukowski adaptation Barfly and Death Wish 4: The Crackdown, Jean-Luc Godard's King Lear and Braddock: Missing In Action III, and last and almost certainly least, Norman Mailer's Tough Guys Don't Dance and Masters Of The Universe. It's tempting to place Mailer, that distinguished man of letters, on the side of artists and deep thinkers, but Tough Guys Don't Dance isn't even smart, pretentious trash. It's pretty much just trash.
Some DVDs are worth renting just for their trailers. Tough Guys Don't Dance is such a film. In the theatrical trailer, "America's most controversial author," who both wrote and directed Tough Guys, addresses the camera directly while clutching a fistful of comment cards from a test screening. "Bold, innovative, wonderful!" crows the first one. "Stinks!" jeers the second. The comments that follow oscillate wildly between rapturous praise and scathing condemnation. "A movie not to miss" is followed by "a giant death orgy with lots of maniacs." "One of the best, most original films I've ever seen" is chased by "One of the worst ever. My grandmother could do better."
I could go on, but I'll skip over the praise—much of which I suspect was furtively written by Mailer and his immediate family—and center on the hateration. "Whoever wrote this has never read a good book," Mailer reads from one card, before hurling it aside in a manner that unmistakably conveys, "Read a good book? I've only written, like, every good book, ever!" Ever the showman, he saves the best for last, literally winking at the screen after rasping "The devil made this picture." Why do I suspect that Mailer sees that as the highest praise he's ever received?
Sadly, this ballsy "You're probably going to hate this filthy, disgusting, hateful movie, which is an affront to good people and basic decency" approach was probably the smartest way to sell Tough Guys. Like so much of Mailer's turbo-charged oeuvre, the trailer isn't selling quality so much as danger, image, attitude, sex, sleaze, and Mailer himself. Mailer's performance throughout is a marvel: he's deadpan, but a shameless ham. If the film that this trailer so indelibly promotes were half as entertaining as its auteur reading comment cards, it'd catapult instantly to the upper tier of Secret Successes. Then again, it's hard to argue with success. Audiences were so won over by the film's deliciously passive-aggressive ad campaign that Tough Guys recouped almost a full fifth of its reported $5 million budget at the box-office.
So it pains me to report that as far as giant death orgies with lots of maniacs go, Tough Guys Don't Dance is unforgivably dull. Or at least that's what I would have told you after seeing it for the first time. At the risk of contradicting myself, I would like to officially take back everything I've said so far. For I was shocked and delighted to discover that upon repeat viewings, nearly all of Tough Guys' flaws become subversive strengths. I knew going in that Tough Guys was a polarizing film. I couldn't have imagined that my opinion of it would shift so radically the second time around, from visceral hate to warped appreciation.
My response represents in microcosm the public's bifurcated response to a lot of cult movies and notorious failures: loathing and ridicule, followed by revisionist acclaim. Cult films often fail in their initial release as art and drama, only to succeed with future generations as camp and comedy.
But enough pussyfooting: Let's get to the booze, broads, bodies, and bullets. You know, the good stuff. In perhaps his single greatest bad performance, a ghostly pale, perpetually hung-over Ryan O'Neal stars as a bartender, writer, chauffeur, drug dealer, and full-time fuck-up in the midst of one hellacious downward spiral. His days blur together into a dispiriting orgy of drinking, fucking, and blackouts, broken up by the occasional discovery of decapitated heads and accidental tattoo acquisition. Oh, and he might be a murderer. Or he might be getting set up by a psychotic, weed-addled small-town police chief (Wings Hauser) with a closet full of skeletons and a disconcerting habit of waving around a giant machete while stoned and drunk off his ass.
Or the guilty party might be a foppish bisexual multimillionaire dandy with an irresistible jones for the low life and a grudge against O'Neal for stealing his party-girl wife (Debra Sandlund). O'Neal and Sandlund, incidentally, met when O'Neal and his then-girlfriend (Isabella Rossellini) answered a personal ad for orgy partners placed in Screw magazine by Sandlund and her then-husband (magician Penn Jillette), a group-sex-loving, fantastically well-endowed preacher named "Big Stoop." During my first viewing, I was thinking "You know, this movie isn't anywhere near as much fun as a film with an orgy involving Isabella Rossellini, Ryan O'Neal, and Penn Jillette as a group-sex-loving, fantastically well-endowed Southern preacher named 'Big Stoop' should be." The second time around, however, I dug the surreal incongruity of it all, particularly the preposterousness of the words "He must have the longest cock in Christendom," coming out of Ingrid Bergman's daughter's impeccably sculpted mouth. So Jillette, O'Neal, and Rossellini: Least likely cinematic orgy ever? Can anyone think of a combination more transcendently random?
Mailer caught flack throughout the years for his perceived sexism, but this film nobly depicts womanhood in all its infinite variety and boundless majesty. The film's strong, empowered female characters range in personality and disposition from cum-crazed cock-sluts to jizz-hungry fuck monkeys to sex-obsessed orgy enthusiasts. I'm surprised Mailer didn't receive some sort of award from NOW for these loving portrayals of womyn.
In addition to slipping the debauched likes of Rossellini and Sandlund the old salami surprise, O'Neal makes sweet, sweet love with a coke-addled former porn star turned society wife (Frances Farmer) while her emasculated husband watches in horror. What initially struck me as bad pulp and vulgarity minus any redeeming energy or vitality eventually came together as a gothic, tongue-in-cheek parody of blood-splattered tough-guy melodrama.
I even came to love that Mailer's he-men and she-sluts use words like "screw," "bang," "broad," and "dame" without a hint of irony or self-consciousness. Tough Guys traffics in the lively patois of the scuzzy barroom. It's locker-room banter with a literary bent and caveman swagger. Here are some particularly juicy snippets of hard-boiled banter, Norman Mailer style:
"Certain dames ought to wear a T-shirt that says 'Hang around, I'll make a cocksucker out of you.'"
"You always worried I'd turn out queer."
"I did my three years in the slammer standing up. Nobody made me a punk."
"My blood itself was turning mean."
"You trying to wake up all the ghosts in Helltown?"
"My pussy hair was bright gold in high school, until I went out and scorched it with the football team."
"My head's been peculiar lately. I have blackouts. I hallucinate."
"Have you ever lived with the foul spirit that comes along when you lose a wife?"
"What makes surgeons happy? To cut people up and get paid for it! That's happiness!"
"You Yankees got tongues like tallywackers!"
"Mr. Regency and I make out five times a night. That's why I call him Mr. Five."
"Your knife. Is in. My dog."
"What if I'm prey to spirits?"
"I say we deep-six the heads."
And this exchange:
"Life gives a man two balls. Use 'em. It's a rare day I don't bang two women. As a matter of fact, I don't sleep too well unless I get that second hump in. Both sides of my nature are obliged to express themselves."
"Tell me, what are your two sides?"
"The enforcer and the maniac."
"Who do we have the honor of addressing?"
"You've never met the maniac."
And this one:
"I made you come 16 times in a night."
"Not one of them was good."
"That's because you've got no wommmmmmb!"
Hauser delivers the "enforcer and the maniac" and "I made you come 16 times in a night!" lines with a wide-eyed, lunatic abandon that's utterly irresistible. A veteran of countless shitty B and Z movies you've never heard of, he looks and acts like the demon-spawn of Gary Busey and Rutger Hauer. It's a performance pitched at just the right level of frothing hysteria.
I was even won over by O'Neal's weak, wan lead performance. As a malicious sort of cosmic joke, Mailer seems to have deliberately undercut his lead actor at every turn. He made the protagonist a passive, weak-willed, pathetic shell of a man who turns white with fright at the first sign of danger, then cast the great tough-guy character actor Lawrence Tierney as O'Neal's rough-hewn dad, so O'Neal would look even more effete by comparison. Here's the apex/nadir of O'Neal's performance, in a notorious scene O'Neal reportedly begged Mailer, to cut but that he sadistically preserved for posterity:
Tough Guys Don't Dance works best as a darkly comic horror-tinged melodrama about the emptiness of excess and the soul-crushing costs of pursuing mindless pleasure. It's populated by some of the most repellent hedonists this side of Rules Of Attraction, and written and directed with tongue firmly in cheek.
When I look back at the first half of this essay, I want to punch the fey asshole that wrote it right in his smug fucking face. Then, after he gradually regains consciousness, we can down some Jack and go out looking for trouble. Oh God! Oh man! Oh God! Oh man! I think Mailer, that crafty old dog, may just be having his wicked way with my fragile psyche after all.
One final note: My Year Of Flops is going biweekly! I love you beautiful people so damn much, I want to bring the Flopization to you twice a month from here on out. So if you've submitted suggestions or would like to do so, you're now twice as likely to see your nominee get its 15 minutes of cyber-fame. I might hate it. I might love it. Heck, I might even hate it, then love it. That's been known to happen. It's also what makes the roughly 2 percent of life that isn't wholly predictable so wonderfully unpredictable. Today, for example, I am firmly, 100 percent against kicking Labradoodle puppies. Who can say with any certainty how I'll feel about it tomorrow?
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Fiasco Turned Secret Success