Tough Guys Don’t Dance (1987)

Director/Screenwriter: Norman Mailer

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

In an example of the worst/best kind of timing, the day we received the DVD of Tough Guys Don’t Dance in the mail was the same day that its writer and director, Norman Mailer, died. That very morning, the hubby read aloud several reviews of this movie he felt compelled to buy and view. The reviews were all over the place, from warm appreciation to outright contempt.

Two reviews described the film, based on Mailer’s novel of the same name, as being as convoluted and impossible to follow as Beat the Devil; one reviewer found this pleasurable, but the other was simply angered. Another reviewer thought this film was a love letter to Provincetown, Massachusetts, Mailer’s home and the place where the movie was set and shot. Still another was positively apoplectic that a film this bad was greenlighted just because Norman Mailer was attached to the project. I could say the same for dozens of bad films by established filmmakers, of course, so I didn’t take this objection seriously. And so what if a novelist wanted to play director? He’s been in and out of the film world in one way or another for years and shouldn’t be forced to do “just one thing” for the rest of his life.

Nonetheless, I do listen to the opinions and advice of my fellow reviewers. When the hubby asked if I would watch the film with him, and despite his obvious enthusiasm for it, I said no. Then word of Mailer’s death came. Well, now I have to watch it, I thought. This is just too much of a coincidence.

“I keep saying to myself, ‘Death is a celebration,’” is the first line of dialog, said before a single image emerges from the screen. (Again, irony of ironies at watching this movie on this day.) Then the story proper begins.

Tim Madden (Ryan O’Neal), bleary-eyed and looking a bit like death warmed over, arises from his bed in his Provincetown mansion. He goes into his bathroom, then hears a tea kettle whistling from the downstairs kitchen. He arms himself with a crowbar and stealthily descends a long staircase, moves into a sitting room, and peers around a corner. A man is sitting at his dining room table. Madden heaves a sigh of relief, puts the crowbar down on the fireplace mantel, and goes in to greet his father (Lawrence Tierney). Dougy doesn’t keep us waiting long for the title line. He informs his slightly estranged son that he has cancer. The doctors predicted he would be dead six months ago, but having outlived their good intentions, he decided he needed to see Tim just in case. He says ghosts keep telling him to dance with his illness—presumably the dance of death. He tells them “tough guys don’t dance.” He comments to Tim, “You look like shit.” This prompts Tim to explain why the last five days have been unusually taxing; “I’ve got the heads of two people in the basement, and I can’t remember if I killed them. I don’t think so, but I’ve been having blackouts.”

tough_guys_thumb.jpgTim’s story unfolds as we learn—and I’m putting this in chronological order to show that the film, despite having a lot of plot, can be understood—that he met a lovely Italian girl named Madeleine (Isabella Rossellini) one night while he was tending bar. They fell in love and moved in together. After about two years, he tells her he answered a swingles ad in Screw magazine and talks her into meeting Baptist preacher Big Stoop (Penn Jillette) and his white trash wife Patty Earlene (Debra Sandlund) in North Carolina. After a wild night of sex, Patty Earlene (later she will change her name to Patty Lareine) tells Tim he has “marked her for life.” She asks him what he wants to be. He says, “a writer.” She says she will ditch Big Stoop, marry a rich man, then divorce him, then marry Tim and give him access to all her money. Strangely enough, this is exactly what happens; even stranger, Patty Lareine marries Tim’s old schoolmate from Exeter, Wardley Meeks III (John Bedford Lloyd). The abandoned Madeleine ends up barren from a car accident Tim caused and later marries Capt. Alvin Luther Regency (Wings Hauser), the eventual chief of police of Provincetown. Problems arise when Patty Lareine leaves Tim, and he runs into a couple from Santa Barbara, California, Jessica Pond (Francis Fisher) and Lonnie Pangborn (R. Patrick Sullivan), at a bar. They spend the evening together, and the next day, Lonnie is found shot in the trunk of his car. Regency dogs Tim at every turn until the mystery of the quickly burgeoning number of bodies is finally revealed, and Madeleine and Tim are reunited.

The film’s structure relies on flashback at several points not only to relate Tim’s backstory, but also to solve the various crimes and misdemeanors that comprise the plot. I thought this approach worked well and provided for some interesting comic moments, most of which had to do with the hypersexed characters and their various couplings, many of which drive the plot.

Debra Sandlund, in her first screen performance, put a lot of energy into her Southern gothic femme fatale and tossed off one of Mailer’s many arch, literary conceits with the greatest aplomb: “My pussy hair was bright gold in high school, until I went out and scorched it with the football team.” Similarly, Lawrence Tierney is the mug to end all mugs—a tough, critical father to his hedonistic, pretentious son who, nonetheless, shows that a bond was always there and will always be the most important thing in his life. All of the supporting roles—save for the scenery chewing of B-movie actor Wings Hauser—were handled artfully, and I particularly liked Lloyd as a foppish rich boy who conspires to deal cocaine because it’s “exciting.” Affectingly, he confirms to Tim one lonely night that he feels like “ashes” and wonders why everyone thinks that the reason he has money is for them to steal it.

Ryan O’Neal, always an underrated actor, is, of course, playing Norman Mailer as he would like to see himself. O’Neal mines a coldness he seems always to access to great effect (see Barry Lyndon) to show how writers develop a distancing sense of irony about even the most painful actions of others. Wallowing in his own self-loathing for the way he treated Madeleine, Tim nonetheless wraps himself in the luxury his marriage to an attractive sexpot affords and gives up trying to put pen to paper—aka, he’s essentially a selfish bastard who would probably eat his young. This is, of course, a cliché of the writer’s life, but one that people of Mailer’s generation seemed to try to fulfill every bit as much as newspapermen like Jimmy Breslin tried to make ink flow from their veins.

In the DVD’s one extra—an interview with Mailer on the making of the film—Mailer gives full credit for the gorgeous look of the film to John Bailey, who is strangely uncredited in the film. He says that he and Bailey played the fiction of director’s prerogative. “Where would you like the camera, Mr. Mailer,” Bailey would ask. Mailer would tell him. Then Bailey would say what he would like to do instead. All of Bailey’s choices were dead-on, making the unique topography of Provincetown—from sand dunes to long, rocky breakwaters—comment on the action and occasionally telegraph the characters’ states of mind. I particularly liked how he used the interiors of Mailer’s own home (Madden’s mansion), hung with large paintings of the Provincetown landscape, to unify the look and atmosphere of the film.

Mailer says that he designed this apparent noir film as a subtle horror movie. There are certainly horrifying scenes, such a quick shot of an eye peering from a severed head and a headless corpse hoisted on a chain. A séance for two prostitutes (read Patty Lareine and Jessica, a triple-X film star) portends of bad things to come and allows for the return of the uncanny at the end of the film. While I doubt anyone would put this film on a horror movie list, I see what Mailer was trying to do. Within his literary spin on the genres on which he decided to riff, I think he largely succeeded. The film is as compulsively watchable as any good horror or noir film would be.

I’m rather sorry that Mailer never had a chance to make another feature film. He actually would have been one up-and-comer to watch. Thanks for the memories, Norman. l

  • Rod spoke:
    11th/11/2007 to 9:04 pm

    Tough Guys Don’t Dance the movie actually improves significantly on TGDD the novel, which is probably Norm’s worst. I especially enjoyed Lawrence Tierney’s performance, and the sequence where Tierney and O’Neal dumped the bodies to the strains of “Pomp and Circumstance” is an apogee of black comedy cinema.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    12th/11/2007 to 8:07 am

    Mailer says on the DVD that he wrote the book in two months to fulfill a publishing contract. Not surprising it’s bad.
    The scene you mention seems ever so slightly like a Mailer conceit about himself. Dougy finds he’s good at dumping bodies, and Tim tells him he missed his calling. I thought to myself “that’s really Mailer (Tierney) talking to O’Neal or Bailey.”
    Shane said, “After all that, this is a father-and-son film after all.” We watched Chicken Little the next day, a typical father-and-son tale, and darned if he wasn’t right!

  • boonie spoke:
    26th/02/2009 to 8:56 pm

    This is only one of maybe 3 films that I can watch again and again. The dialogue and characters are riveting, and I’m very glad you noticed what a powerful actor Ryan O’Neal is. That being said, Wings Hauser’s performance tops every acting job I can think of 1985-1990. But I’m not one of these people that think “acting” is this great talent.You should certainly be better at it than the Governator, but if you are just good enough, then a God-givin presence takes it from there and makes people want to watch you. Notice that the people who are really loved for it are seldom given awards for it. I watch movies and think to myself ” damn I love watching Warren Oates, Jeff Bridges, Scott Wilson, etc.” Ryan O’Neal is thought of fondly by a good many people who give no thought to “good” or “bad” acting because “real” presence never makes you reflect as such. Wings Hauser would have been a brilliant Batman nemesis, and John Bedford Lloyd’s “Wardley” character is one of my daily impersonations when I’m inspired.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    27th/02/2009 to 10:03 am

    Boonie – Ryan O’Neal has incredible acting chops that are discredited because of some of the films he’s appeared in, most notably Love Story, and his good looks. Same thing happens to Tom Cruise.
    As for whether acting is a great talent, I have to part company with you on that. All you have to see is a bad performance to know that not everyone can do it – I refer you to anything Patty Hearst has done for an example. And when you see someone like Heath Ledger take on a wide range of roles and completely disappear into them, that’s not personality you’re responding to but a person who is NOT the actor.

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