From 1968 to 1970, author Norman Mailer dabbled in underground cinema, making three features, with Maidestone being the “most popular” of the trio. Mailer also ended up appearing in Jean-Luc Godard’s infamously incomprehensible film King Lear, which was produced by the notorious Cannon Films. The bombastic Mailer got on well enough with Yoram Globus and Menahim Golan of Cannon that they decided to fund an adaptation of his most recent novel, Tough Guys Don’t Dance, with Mailer as director. The novel had been written to fulfil a contractual obligation, but it ended up being a much-needed financial success for Mailer even though the reviews were mixed at best. As for the film, Tough Guys Don’t Dance was his final film as a director.
On the surface, the film is a pretty routine murder mystery set in Provincetown, New England, where Mailer lived off and on throughout much of his life. Ryan O’Neill plays the Tim Madden, who got done for dealing cocaine and is now… a writer who is prone to blackouts. He finds a woman’s severed head in his marijuana stash and blood in his car, and the unhinged new police chief, Luther Regency (Cole Hauser), has it in for him—and is fucking his ex-girlfriend Madeline (Isabella Rossellini). The film very quickly goes completely off the rails while Tim tries to figure who the woman’s head belonged to and who killed her… could it have been him?
Mailer can’t direct for shit, but it’s so incompetently made that it almost becomes high art. It feels like what you’d get if Tommy Wiseau directed Blue Velvet: besides Rossellini, the film even has a score by Angelo Badalamenti! The film’s most notorious moment is the “Oh God Oh Man” scene, which is when Ryan O’Neill’s character gets upsetting news and overplays it so extremely that it becomes comical, Mailer fought to keep that scene and specifically that take in the film, he was so convinced that it was right for the film. The performances are all over the place. O’Neill is actually pretty decent, besides that aforementioned moment, while Cole Hauser feels like he belongs in Raising Arizona—the performance is that extreme and cartoonish. Lawrence Tierney plays Madden’s cancer-stricken father, Penn Jillette plays a priest, and Frances Fisher gives a ridiculously over-the-top performance as a porn star!
Tough Guys Don’t Dance is kind of terrible, but it’s still so insanely entertaining. The dialogue from Mailer is absolutely hilarious, and it’s so exaggerated by the cast that it’s almost like watching a Russ Meyer or John Waters film. It’s all incredibly campy, but you gets the sense that Mailer thought he was making a serious neo-noir, even though everybody in the film clearly got the ridiculousness of it all. It does, however, have a good sense of place. Mailer knew Provincetown like the back of his hand, so that’s to be expected. The cinematography by John Bailey, who also shot Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, is rock solid and elevates the film somewhat. It’s a film that just needs to be experienced, and you will be entertained, no matter what… even if the way you are entertained may not have Mailer’s intent (and you’ll probably be the better for it, because Norman Mailer was a prick.)
Vinegar Syndrome’s Blu-Ray boasts a great new 2K remaster. Cole Hauser, cinematographer John Bailey and Mailer’s son Michael all are interviewed, with Michael’s interview done via Zoom. The final interview is with J. Michael Lennon, who is the executor of Mailer’s literary estate and his authorised biographer. They first became friends after Lennon wrote him a letter of support after Mailer’s infamous appearance on the Dick Cavett show with Gore Vidal. How anybody could think Mailer came out good in that exchange is beyond me, Mailer got utterly OWNED by Vidal. Justin Bozung, who has just written a book on the cinema of Mailer, supplies a commentary track. The final extras are the absolutely hilarious trailer where Mailer reads focus group cards for the film (I highly suspect he wrote them himself) and the old featurette from the MGM DVD, where Mailer just blows smoke up his own ass about how great his film is, which is quite amusing.