Norman Mailer was one of the most controversial and critically acclaimed American authors of the twentieth century. Mailer was also a filmmaker, though I am sorry to say that very few critics outside of the New York “underground” have bothered to analyze his films. I wrote before about Mailer’s films Maidstone, Wild 90 and Beyond The Law. The motivation to make these films comes from two sources. One was the work of Andy Warhol, whose films focused on scenes improvised by the cast and whose main dramatic arcs were dictated by spontaneous reaction. The second was very simple; frustration. In the early sixties, Mailer’s novel The Deer Park was adapted for the stage. Mailer was displeased with the play, and sought to bring his unique literary style to film, negating the democratic nature of theater production that did not suite his dominant personality.
After Maidstone, a now infamous debacle, Mailer would not direct another film till Tough Guys Don’t Dance. In-between he did manage to pen two screenplays. The first of which was an adaptation of his own novel The Executioner’s Song into a television movie directed by frequent collaborator Lawrence Schiller. The second was a never produced adaptation of King Lear to be directed by Jean-Luc Godard. These credits would be the extent of Mailer’s career as a film artist.
A point, which has always intrigued me about Mailer, is not necessarily the content or style of these five films, but the nature of the man himself. Mailer is uneasy in his role of filmmaker, and is quick to be among one of the first detractors from his work. For instance, the trailer for his film Tough Guys Don’t Dance is a montage of clips from the film cut with Mailer himself reading poor preview notices. Even earlier in his career, Mailer published a lengthy explanation of his aesthetic choices in his first three films as a chapter in a book of essays titled Existential Errands.
Mailer was a self-professed egomaniac, which has used self-parody and intellectual musings as a means to disguise his own paranoia. In his book Advertisements For Myself, Mailer relates his inability to take criticism and the combative reactions he has had to even the mildest slander. The sensitive steak to his character is obvious; interestingly the male protagonists of his films represent his own ideal, void of these shortcomings.
That said, to view and analyze the films of Norman Mailer is to know a part of Norman Mailer, as much so as to read any of his many published works. Few artists in film and literature have so intricately imposed themselves consistently in their work as Mailer. Therefore, it seems reasonable to assume Mailer may be representative of the psychology and culture of his times. If this is the case, as I believe it is, one may learn a great deal about America in the past sixty years from Mailer’s work.