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.

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.