In “Norman Mailer: The American,” a documentary on DVD from Cinema Libre, we get to see the infamous moment when the author of “The Executioner’s Song” attempted to execute Rip Torn’s ear.
It happened during the final, improvised moments of the filming of Mailer’s indie, “Maidstone.”
A deadly serious Torn goes at Mailer’s head with a hammer. Mailer, aghast and bleeding, retaliates by taking a bite out of Torn’s ear as they grapple on the ground, while an eerily quiescent crew and Mailer’s frantic family look on.
That’s Mailer’s world in a nutshell. His favorite word was “existential,” and what could be more existential than having an improvised scenario break into real life, real blood?
The kicker is that, deranged as this episode is, Mailer later says in a filmed interview (and in an essay on “Maidstone” reprinted in -- where else? -- “Existential Errands”) that Torn’s ripping and tearing was “right” for the film:
“Without it, there was not enough.” With it, there still isn’t much.
This is the second major documentary on Mailer, the first having aired on PBS in 2000, seven years before the writer’s death. That film focused primarily on Mailer’s politics throughout a long and tumultuous career. “The American,” which draws on the earlier film, concentrates on Mailer the brawler, the blowhard, the serial philanderer.
Directed by Joseph Mantegna (not the actor), it’s a fascinating slice of scurrility. Once you forget about actually learning anything about Mailer the writer, you can sit back and bask in all those Page Six episodes in the great writer’s life.
There’s the Town Hall panel discussion on feminism with Germaine Greer, where the author of “The Prisoner of Sex” comes under heavy mortar attack from the “libbies.”
There’s his second wife Adele (he had six) crying as she talks about the night Mailer stabbed her with a penknife at a party and he was carted off to Bellevue.
There’s his not quite mea culpa after the convict Jack Henry Abbott, whom he helped gain parole, promptly commits murder soon after his release.
There’s Mailer’s 1969 run for mayor of New York City (campaign slogan: “The Other Guys are the Joke”).
And of course, there’s his immortal appearance on “The Dick Cavett Show,” where he goes after Gore Vidal for lumping Henry Miller and him with Charles Manson.
Mailer tells a revealing story about how he almost met Marilyn Monroe, the subject of his fawning, conspiracy-mongering 1973 book, “Marilyn.” In that coffee-table tome, Mailer takes some nasty swipes at fellow Brooklyn-Jewish boy Arthur Miller (who wrote “Death of a Salesman” in the same apartment building where Mailer, in the upper floors, was writing “The Naked and the Dead.”)
Miller invited Mailer and Adele to his Connecticut home at a time when the playwright and the movie star were married. Mailer showed up with every intention of stealing Monroe away, only to be told that she was out of town. Dirty trick.
Mailer found out later that Monroe, afraid of meeting him, had been hiding upstairs the whole time. At least that’s his version. Sounds like everybody involved dodged a bullet.
Mailer’s long term mistress, Carole Mallory, talks about how she insisted on a “writing lesson before sex.” His third wife, Lady Jeanne Campbell, favorite granddaughter of Lord Beaverbrook and mistress of Henry Luce, got a fat advance to write a tell- all memoir, used it to buy a Greek villa and never published the memoir.
Norris Church Mailer, his last wife, is interviewed in the documentary and did write a memoir, “ A Ticket to the Circus.” It’s not pretty. (She died in 2010.)
So with all this, what did Mailer hate most in the world? Plastic. “You touch it and nothing comes back.”
(Peter Rainer is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own).
Muse highlights include Esplund on art and Vines on restaurants.
To contact the writer responsible for this story: Peter Rainer at Fi1L2E@aol.com
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at email@example.com