Underground Film Journal

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Norman Mailer: Underground Filmmaker

By Mike Everleth ⋅ November 11, 2007

I was totally bummed out to hear that Norman Mailer passed away on Saturday. I did somewhat “meet” the guy once years ago. He was in Rochester, NY to give a lecture, which was way too expensive for me to go to. But, he was at a Borders for a book signing in the afternoon. A couple days ahead of time, I bought a first edition hardcover of his novel of ancient Egypt, Ancient Evenings, from a used bookstore and brought that for him to sign.

The only thing I could think to say to the guy without sounding like a fawning mess was I had recently watched his fourth film Tough Guys Don’t Dance on TV, so of course I asked him if he was planning to make any more movies. I don’t remember much about the film now, but I know I did enjoy it when I saw it. He gave me some kind of answer like “Maybe I will,” which came with a little chuckle knowing of course there wouldn’t be. That was about 25 years ago. Too bad he didn’t make more films.

Tough Guys Don’t Dance was made in the ’80s, stars Ryan O’Neal and Isabella Rosellini, and is an adaptation of Mailer’s novel of the same name. It’s a mystery about a writer who finds a severed head following one of his alcoholic blackouts.

Back in the late ’60s, though, Mailer was inspired by the underground film movement going on in NYC, particularly the films of Andy Warhol, who just turned his camera on and let crazy shit happen in front of it. Mailer made three films using a similar technique: Wild 90, Beyond the Law and Maidstone. All three films are relatively unavailable.

However, the website Subterranean Cinema said it has tracked down and found some underground DVDs of the films. They don’t say where they got them nor where anyone else can get them. But if you’re interested in learning more about the films, SubCin has reprinted lengthy essays regarding their making from various Mailer biographies. SubCin has also posted up a video of a fight scene between Mailer and actor Rip Torn from Maidstone, which I’ll embed below.

Allegedly, this fight was a personal one and not staged for the film. Shooting had supposedly ended the day before. However, SubCin disputes this. If the shooting of the movie was indeed over, how come there were cameras around to capture the fight so perfectly? Regardless, you can watch Torn whack Mailer with a hammer, whereupon the writer tries to chew Torn’s ear off. Good stuff: