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Norman Mailer: The American (DVD Review)

21 May, 2012 By: Mike Clark

Cinema Libre
$19.95 DVD
Not rated.

Forever entertaining, though with less intimidation as he approached his eye-twinkling emeritus stage, proudly Brooklyn-raised Norman Mailer always seemed to be everywhere over the decades. More than once, these destinations included jail (for acts both personal and political) and (metaphorically, as a journalist) happily stuck in the crawl of Dick Nixon and LBJ. In fact, Mailer is captured here in this portrait conceding that he simply didn’t like the latter’s face, an amusingly timely dovetail with the brand new fourth volume of Robert Caro’s mammoth Johnson biography, which I’m currently reading (make that eating).

As with writing peers James Jones and Irwin Shaw, Mailer’s formative old-school World War II experiences paved the way for a major postwar novel of “Great American” ambitions, but he was also enough of the then burgeoning times to become a co-founder of the Village Voice. Mailer embraced one generation’s booze and another’s cannabis; stabbed second wife Adele nearly to death in a Greenwich Village party that got more than out of hand; ascertained, quicker than most, that JFK and Jackie were going to become rock stars and wrote about them accordingly; was on the right side of the Vietnam War — and of Muhammad Ali; produced some of the finest political reportage of the day as a pioneer in “the New Journalism”(Pulitzer No. 1); took on feminism (not his finest moment — but what guts); became a feature filmmaker of sorts (this, too, got out of hand); ran for mayor of New York City; was one of many who made “The Dick Cavett Show” must viewing for the politically wired; wrote The Executioner’s Song (Pulitzer No. 2); lobbied to get talented writer/murderer John Henry Abbott out of prison — whereupon Abbott almost immediately killed someone else; and fathered eight children (but raised nine) by six wives, all of whom apparently turned out well in a harmonious extended family.

Judging from my own limited experience, he was also approachable when on his good behavior, and I still treasure his “Cheers, Norman Mailer” autograph on my paperback copy of St. George and the Godfather (it had to have helped that when I met him, I had a gorgeous date). This biographical portrait by Joseph Mantegna (not the actor) makes 85 minutes go very quickly, though it doesn’t fully tap into how mesmerizing Mailer was to listen to — though, bonus extras that capture him on an array of subjects smooth this gap over some. Nor is it particularly explorative of what Mailer could do with nouns, verbs and adjectives (not that this is easy to do on film), emphasizing instead the writer’s psychological state over the years. On this level, the result hits at least a triple, thanks to the almost awe-inspiring on-camera participation of key wives. There’s also archival-footage treasures of one or two additional former spouses who are otherwise not part of this particular party — plus two of his children (both appealing) who prove illuminating as well.

Access and availability give this documentary a decided advantage over, say, PBS’s recently released Margaret Mitchell: American Rebel (talk about a different kind of writer) — which, while certainly interesting, is somewhat compromised by too many deceased Mitchell peers and limited material from the vaults (to say nothing of a subject who became a recluse). But here’s a case where, if you followed Mailer and can tick off the incidents in your memory, a lot of these “greatest hits” are here, either through filmed record or first-hand (as in spousal) accounts. 

We get, for instance, a lot of first-hand discussion of how the brutal reviews of Barbary Shore and The Deer Park damaged Mailer’s psyche and spurred a lot of nocturnal pacing at home after the overnight success of The Naked and the Dead. There are also bite-sized clips from the inappropriately glossy Stuart Whitman movie Warner Bros. hacked out of Mailer’s novel An American Dream and the entertaining Ryan O’Neal howler Mailer directed and adapted himself from Tough Guys Don’t Dance — plus far more extensive ones from 1970’s improvisatory Maidstone, in which actor Rip Torn bloodied director Mailer’s head with a hammer and Mailer retaliated by severely biting Torn’s ear as Mailer’s real-life young children (visiting the set) screamed and cried. And no chronicle would, of course, be complete without his famed verbal slug-out with Gore Vidal on the Cavett show — as their host and the New Yorker’s Paris correspondent and co-guest Janet Flanner tried to referee, a TV night I’ll never forget.  

Somewhere along the way, Mailer’s persona mellowed out — a situation that probably had to do, as he all but conceded, with age (and probably all those family responsibilities). It’s sad to see him here in one of his last public appearances looking and acting frail, though he does own up to impaired hearing and eyesight with his usual frankness. It’s also kind of eerie (in the bonus extras) to see him speak of the novel’s decline in importance to the general public — and to predict with a very clear crystal ball what mass computer usage would do to people.

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