If you ever find yourself on the campus of the University of North Texas and you need to kill some time, stop by the UNT Library, go up to the second floor, find the biographies, and track down a copy of Peter Manso’s Mailer: His Life and Times.
Back in December of 2007, at a time when I really should have been studying for my finals, I spent an entire afternoon in the library reading Manso’s book. I didn’t know much about Norman Mailer, the Pulitzer prize-winning writer and occasional political candidate, beyond the fact that he died that previous November and that a lot of older people who I respected apparently thought highly of his work. Though Manso’s book had been written 20 years earlier, it still provided an interesting portrait of the controversial author. It was largely an oral history, full of interviews with people who had known Mailer over the years. As I skimmed the book, it quickly became apparent that, among other things, Mailer was a larger-than-life figure.
For me, the book was at its most interesting when it dealt with Mailer’s attempts to be a filmmaker. In the 1960s, Mailer directed three movies. All three of them also starred Norman Mailer and featured his friends in supporting roles. All three of them were largely improvised. And, when released into theaters, all three of them were greeted with derision.
Maidstone, Mailer’s 3rd film, was filmed in 1970. In the film, Mailer played Norman Kingsley, an avante garde film director who is running for President. Over the course of one weekend, while also working on a movie about a brothel, Norman meets with potential supporters and debates the issues. And, of course, shadowy figures plot to assassinate Norman, not so much because they don’t want him to be President as much as they want him to be a martyr for their vaguely defined cause.
Just based on what I read in Manso’s book, it’s hard not to feel that the making of Maidstone could itself be the basis of a good movie. Mailer essentially invited all of his friends to his estate and they spent 5 days filming, with no script. It was five days of drinking, drugs, and bad feelings.
At one point, actor and painter Herve Villechaize (who would later play Knick Knack in The Man With The Golden Gun) got so drunk and obnoxious that he was picked up by actor Rip Torn and literally tossed over a fence. The unconscious Villechaize ended up floating face down in a neighbor’s pool. After fishing Villechaize out of the pool, the neighbor tossed him back over the fence and shouted, “Norman, come get your dwarf!”
Eventually, after five days, filming fell apart. Some members of the cast were okay with that. And one most definitely was not..
Fortunately, Maidstone is currently available on YouTube so I watched it last night. Unfortunately, the film itself is never as interesting as the stories about what went on behind the cameras. Maidstone is essentially scene after scene of people talking and the effectiveness of each scene depends on who is in it. For instance, Norman’s half-brother is played by Rip Torn, a professional actor with a big personality. The scenes with Torn are interesting to watch because Rip Torn is always interesting to watch. However, other scenes feature people who were clearly cast because they happened to be visiting the set on that particular day. And these scenes are boring because, quite frankly, most people are boring.
And then you’ve got Norman Mailer himself. For an acclaimed writer who was apparently quite a celebrity back in the day, it’s amazing just how little screen presence Norman Mailer had as an actor. Preening for the camera, standing around shirtless and showing off his hairy back along with his middle-aged man boobs, Mailer comes across as being more than a little pathetic. He’s at his worst whenever he tries to talk to a woman, giving off a vibe that’s somewhere between creepy uncle and super veiny soccer dad having a midlife crisis.
It’s an uneven film but, for the first half or so, it’s at least interesting as a time capsule. For those of us who want to know what rich intellectuals were like in the late 60s, Maidstone provides a service. However, during the second half of the film, it becomes obvious that Mailer got bored. Suddenly, all pretense towards telling an actual story are abandoned and the film becomes about Mailer asking his cast for their opinion about what they’ve filmed so far.
And then, during the final 15 minutes of the film, Norman Mailer decides to have the cameramen film him as he plays with his wife and children. This is apparently too much for Rip Torn who, after spending an eternity glaring at Mailer and undoubtedly thinking about everything he could have been doing during those five day if he hadn’t been filming Maidstone, walks up to Mailer, says, “You must die, Kingsley,” and then hits Mailer on the head with a hammer.
This, of course, leads to a long wrestling match between Mailer and Torn and, as the cameras roll, blood is spilled and insults are exchanged. There’s a lot of differing opinions about whether this final fight was spontaneous or staged. Having seen the footage, I get the impression that Mailer was caught off guard but that Torn probably let the cameraman know what he was going to do ahead of time.
Regardless, it’s hard to deny that the pride of Temple, Texas, Elmore “Rip” Torn, appears to be the one who came out on top. After the fight, Mailer and Torn have a lengthy argument that amounts to Rip saying that he had to do it because it was the only way that the film would make sense while Mailer replies with some of the least imaginative insults ever lobbed by a Pulitzer winner.
(So basically, Rip Torn won both the physical and the verbal rounds of the fight.)
Anyway, you can watch the entire Rip Torn/Norman Mailer confrontation below.
Now, while the fight is really the only must-see part of Maidstone, it still has considerable value as a time capsule of the time when it was made. You can watch it below!