Norman Mailer’s bravado marred almost everything he wrote. Judging by his essays on the space program or the presidential campaigns, Mailer can be brilliant when writing about man’s intellectual pursuits. Unfortunately, he can be insulting when writing about instinctive behavior such as violence or sexuality. He refuses to identify with women or with homosexuals. And when he praises black males, it’s usually reserved for pimps, drug addicts, gamblers or felons. Gerald Early, a black sports writer, once complained about how little Mailer had grown in his understanding of race relations between the time that he wrote The White Negro during the 1950s and The Fight (concerning the Ali/Foreman match) in the 1970s. In the earlier work, Mailer states that it was “no accident that psychopathy is most prevalent with the Negro.” In the latter work, he speaks of the “pride Blacks took in their skill as pimps.” Mailer was once arrested for stabbing his second wife. When assisting Jack Abbot, the author of The Belly of the Beast, to get out of jail on parole, Abbot was once again arrested – this time for murder. Mailer has also praised the intellect of mass killers such as Gary Gilmore and Charles Manson.
Mailer is a publicity hound that, in the past, desperately wanted to be identified as the greatest writer of his generation. As an insecure twenty-six year old, he penned the novel Naked and the Dead. As uneven as that novel was, he has not been able to write one since that was nearly as good. The Deer Park, The Executioner’s Song and Ancient Evenings were Mailer’s attempt to write that epic novel, but in all three cases he failed. Mailer has a terrific feel for the small nuances. He generally has no feeling whatsoever for the big picture. Mailer is now in his mid-eighties and there’s no reason to believe that the great novel he wished to write will ever be forthcoming. So why take the man seriously at all? For one, despite all of the hallucinogens that he ingested, his mind is still in tact and he can speak from an incredible breadth of experience. For two, Mailer has always had the courage to not shy away from controversy. And three, he is so uncomfortably aware of his own limitations that he is forthright about the struggles he has had to go through to keep himself from shattering to pieces. Because of this, Mailer is the only one who could have written Tough Guys Don’t Dance. And he’s the only one audacious enough to think he could actually direct the movie himself.
Tough Guys Don’t Dance starts out strange enough. A loser named Tim Madden (Ryan O’Neal), after binging on some concoction of drugs, wakes up in his ex-wife’s house with a new tattoo on his arm and finds his girlfriend’s head wrapped up in his stash of marijuana beside his car that is parked outside. This creates quite the dilemma for him because he can’t remember if he was the one that actually decapitated her. Along the way we discover that there are more heads. This is both a relief and a problem for Tim. Though Tim was never quite convinced that he committed any murder, he couldn’t give a plausible alibi even to himself. Thus he feels less guilty knowing there were too many heads that had no connection to his person. Unfortunately, he has no way to prove that he’s not the murderer so it really looks like he’s on the rap for all of the heads. For the remainder of the movie, he plays the part of private investigator (for himself) to discover what actually happened.
Meanwhile, his father, Dougy Madden (Lawrence Tierney), is a bit concerned about him. His father is a tough man and been through a large number of scrapes. He’s a bartender who has associated with professional fighters and mobsters. The only thing that was ever going to stop him was the cancer he was now dying from. The father does not understand his flaky son, but he would do anything he could to straighten him out.
We also have a number of flashbacks, the most important concerning Tim’s ex-wife, Patty (Debra Sandlund). Patty was rich and not too particular about people she slept with either before or after the marriage. Patty’s previous husband, Wardley (John Bedford Lloyd), was completely odious to her and at one point she asked Tim to murder him. (Since Tim couldn’t even commit a murder under these circumstances, it stands to reason that he probably could not have committed any later murders.) There are so many other flashbacks wrapped in subplots (adding up to several murders and at least two suicides) that it would be impossible to mention them all.
Finally, we have the Chief of Police, Regency (Wings Hauser), who is not your normal law and order man. Regency is involved in wife swapping, various big time drug deals and a number of sex parties. He also appears to be a serial killer. Let’s just say that, though the plot does get confusing at times, he is probably the one responsible for all of the heads. When things are looking bad for the sheriff, he simply takes himself out. With no one to point the finger at and with Tim potentially facing the charges for several murders, Tim and Dougy decide to (as in Dougy’s words) “deep six the heads” to destroy all of the evidence. (Tim and Dougy take a boat out into the ocean and dump all of the heads there.)
Mailer is, of course, open to criticism for all of his lunacy, but this time he has shown that many of his critics are in a rut. Movie critics may decry cliché-ridden plots and storylines (something this movie defies in everyway), but they secretly disdain anything that departs from the Hollywood script and will nitpick about a movie that does just that. Most movie reviewers say that the production of Tough Guys Don’t Dance looks amateurish. They will acknowledge that the acting of Tierney and Sandlund and Hauser is magnificent (O’Neal comes across almost strangely conventional). However, they will criticize the confusing plot, the poor use of camera angles, the violence and the number of characters that just disappear - only to hide the fact that these same critics don’t know what to make of this movie. Mailer and the cast poke fun at the pansy critics. Long accused of being a Hemingway clone, the bluster that Mailer brings to the screen is so vital and rare that the so-called macho posturing seems fresh. This is an old fashioned detective movie - with most of the characters on drugs. This movie is also a coming of age story for a messed up young man under the tutelage of his tough and immaculate father. The father could just as well have been Detective Phillip Marlowe (played perfectly by Bogart in The Big Sleep) - now grown old and who is coping with his cancer stoically. There is an actual connection between the father and son that is personal and real.
Tough Guys Don’t Dance, released in 1987, even makes the Tarentino movies seem tame. Mailer, of course, is not known as a filmmaker and it does show in this unpolished movie. But without all of the imperfections, the singular storyline, and the sheer nuttiness, this movie would never have been so fascinating. It’s the energy and the fact it contained a couple of characters I liked that gives it an appeal that most similar and later movies completely lacked.
© Robert S. Miller 2007