Norman Mailer: Strong Writer, Weak Actor, Brutally Wrestles Actor Rip Torn

“Gorging on the man’s image and voice is a reminder of his strength as a writer that’s easiest to overlook: an awareness of his own limitations. This is a quality that his acting lacks.” This Christine Smallwood writes of the novelist Norman Mailer after having watched the late-sixties/early-seventies trilogy of films he directed and starred in: Wild 90, Beyond the Law, and Maidstone. Her post on the New Yorker‘s blog Page-Turner considers these pictures, recently released as a box set in the Criterion Collection’s Eclipse Series, ultimately finding them hugely flawed but not uninterestingly so. They have cinematography by a young D.A. Pennebaker, they foreshadow reality television in their own skewed way, and they capture the spectacle of Norman Mailer reveling in, essentially, the role of himself. Not that this counts as an acting technique: “Mailer lurches, lumbers, rants, reels,” writes Smallwood. “He doesn’t bother with a story that would drum up interest or fix attention, because he knows, and you know, that you’re watching because he’s Norman Mailer.”

But a force fiercer than Mailer’s will to impose his own reality rips into the very end of Maidstone, and the result has become a popular clip on the internet. That force’s name is Rip Torn. He plays the brother-in-law and would-be assassin of Mailer’s character, an iconoclastic auteur running for President of the United States. On camera, Torn suddenly attacks Mailer, and the two launch into what looks like an actual brawl, involving techniques up to and including a hammer to the ear. “The intrusion of bald ‘real life’ means that Mailer has to reckon with another person,” writes Smallwood. “This, I think, is what motivated his interest in violence more generally: it interrupted the constant preoccupation of being Norman Mailer, forcing him out of himself. In his writing, he could sometimes discipline himself into achieving those moments, as when he imagined the mind-set of a policeman in ‘Armies of the Night,’ but onscreen he needed to get hit.”

Related content:

Norman Mailer & Martin Amis, No Strangers to Controversy, Talk in 1991

Norman Mailer & Marshall McLuhan Debate the Electronic Age

Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.

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