Biographies of beloved, Best Actor-winning character actor Lee Marvin are surprisingly few and far between. Aside from memoirs from his first and second wives, the first and only other full biography written by an outsider (Donald Zec) was published in 1980, when Marvin was still alive and working. There’s certainly room for another sustained examination of his life, but Dwayne Epstein’s Lee Marvin: Point Blank isn’t anything close to definitive. A sloppily edited assemblage of interviews, it’s first-draft oral history in which readers with considerable patience can find anecdotal gems.
Epstein issues several medical diagnoses derived from his own conclusions. The most plausible is that Marvin’s World War II service left him with post-traumatic stress disorder, fueling drinking bouts and cravings for violence; less convincing, and only briefly broached, is the idea that Marvin had ADD. Epstein’s broad thesis is that as a compulsive supporting-actor scene-stealer, and at the brief peak of his leading-man feature-film popularity—the brief run of box-office success from 1965’s Cat Ballou to 1967’s The Dirty Dozen—Marvin “came to represent the anxiousness of the time.” “The year 1968 proved to be a turbulent time in the country and, by extension, the world,” he clunkily argues, when “a silver-haired, middle-aged man of violence” stood in for the United States’ “midlife crisis.” It’s a tenuous argument, more asserted than fleshed out.
“What I want more than anything is just to be a character actor,” Epstein quotes Marvin’s first wife on her husband’s ambitions. Point Blank is most thorough in fleshing out a consistent philosophy of performance that led him to his goal. One interviewee reveals that Marvin heavily criticized “gimmick” actors who made a costume choice or tic into their character’s key. But the same person claims Marvin was himself this type of gimmick performer. Badly assembled and poorly written as it is, Point Blank also tells a story about how Marvin managed his ascent, returning to TV after frustration with go-nowhere supporting parts in the ’50s led him to conclude “every young actor should do a TV series to establish himself.”
Interviews—mostly conducted in the ’90s, many with now-deceased major collaborators and intimates like Woody Strode and John Frankenheimer—provide small, flavorful anecdotes about Marvin on and off the set, albeit also poorly edited. (From his lawyer, A. David Kagon: “Here’s an anecdote. I wasn’t there, but it’s a great story.”) The stories are predictably hell-raising: The late Jack Palance tells of a producer in a restaurant who shouted, “It’s Lee Marvin! Get the children out of here!” Marvin fans who can get through all the throat-clearing tedium will find similar quotable bits in these underedited pages.