Norman Mailer’s Tough Guys Don’t Dance (Part One)

*contains spoilers

There are movies that people either absolutely love or hate in equal measure and Norman Mailer’s (1923-2007 renal failure) Tough Guys Don’t Dance (1987) has been one of those polarising movies. I love it, and always have since I saw it on VHS back when it was first released in the late 1980s or early 1990s. Here I try to find out why…

Mailer is of course one of the 20th Century’s most celebrated American authors and one of the founders of “New Journalism” …

Norman Mailer

The movie starts with the words “I keep saying to myself: ‘Death is a celebration’.” And to finish the movie it ends with the maniacal laughter of a woman as the couple who survive the movie close the door on their multi-million dollar mansion, as they also close the door on a tale of murder and more than just a touch of madness.

Mailer has described the film as a “horror movie”. That is just one of the many descriptions of this multi-faceted film!

Tough Guys VHS cover

This is a Cannon Group production, filmed in 1986, the peak of the Golan-Globus output, and released the following year. It  was one of several art-house productions that Cannon brought out, other classics being John Cassavetes’ (1929-89 cirrhosis) Love Streams (1984) and Barbet Schroeder’s (1941-) Barfly (1987).

It is thanks to Cannon’s Menaham Golan (1929-1914) that Mailer got the money to make this dense and beautifully shot movie that is apparently based on one of the least atypical of his novels. The screenplay was based on a novel he punched out quickly as he owed it to his publisher.

Cannon Group logo

I have, incidentally, not read Mailer or the original novel of Tough Guys Don’t Dance, which is obviously influenced by Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled detective novels of the 1940s.

Raymond Chandler

I know Chandler well and it is probably that aspect which draws me close to Tough Guys – and the fact it is a masterpiece. An unexpected one, since Mailer had made a few experimental films in the late 1960s and early 70s – the best of which, I am led to believe since I haven’t seen them and can’t afford to – is Maidstone (1970). It starred Mailer, was directed by Mailer, who is surrounded by acolytes and hangers on, and what I have seen of these movies, another is titled Wild 90 (1967), they are a kind of cinema verite self-indulgence… and definitely experimental.

Mailer seemingly lost while directing one of his experimental films

It is like Mailer wants to be a director but he doesn’t know how to direct a movie which will earn enough money to make the next film. That he made three experimental films – as well as another in 1947 – shows he had a true interest in movies. Maidstone ends with Mailer getting attacked by a hammer by Rip Torn (1931-2019) unexpectedly and Mailer responds by biting into Torn’s ear in some sort of dogfight. It’s all some sort of mini assassination attempt on the life of political hopeful Mailer and it apparently finally gave meaning to the 45 hours of footage Mailer paid to be shot. Let’s jump into Tough Guys Don’t Dance and I will treat the narrative just as Mailer does… kind of schizophrenically.

“Well honey, I am a witch. Good blondes are,” says actor Ryan O’Neal’s loaded, in more ways than one, wife as she plays a bad trumpet to raise hell amid the dying embers of a party.

Debra Sandlund and Ryan O’Neal face off in Tough Guys Don’t Dance

“You’re not a real blonde,” says Ryan, dropping the word good as well, as he shows disillusion with the marriage.

Later his wife wants to have a séance, because “two dead whores keep whispering to me.”

I guess this is the beginning of the horror element as it is a full moon when the séance takes place. The table shakes and a couple of the other characters, including Ryan’s wife, played by Debra Sandlund named Patty Lareine, with a hellish drawl – scream.

Lawrence Tierney in Dillinger (1945) trailer

One of Mailer’s preoccupations in his universe is about the triumph of evil. He often wrote about murders and murderers. Tough Guys Don’t Dance is based on real life serial killer Tony Costa (1944-74 suicide by hanging), who murdered women, dismembered them and buried them in the sand hills of Provincetown.

All this about the séance is told in flashback as Ryan’s father, actor Lawrence Tierney (1919-2002 pneumonia), who may be remembered as the head honcho in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992), is dying of cancer. It is said Tarantino picked Tierney for that film after seeing Tough Guys. Indeed tough guy actor Tierney was well known for his roughhouse portrayals and real life bad boy antics. I like him especially in a film entitled Born to Kill (1947). It is a classic and the first film noir directed by The Sound of Music (1965) director Robert Wise (1914-2005 heart failure). Big flop at the time, it stars a rather rotten Claire Trevor (1910-2000 respiratory failure). Try and see it.

A bloodied Lawrence Tierney after one of his many real life brawls

So Tierney turning up as Ryan’s hard-boiled father with cancer is no surprise. He says he has quit chemo, preferring hard liquor as he tells how the spirits circle around his bed in the middle of the night and tell him to dance. “I tell them: ‘Tough guys don’t dance’.” And the spirits answer: “Keep Dancing.”

As a comment on masculinity, it says no matter how hard-boiled and tough you are, there will still be that bit of the feminine about you to criticise – not matter how much you like to deny it. Even if it is the self/spirits who is accusing you of it! I guess that’s character building!!

Jules Dassin’s Night and the City (1950) trailer

The title of the film and the novel, which was written a few years before the movie was made, came from a story which maybe apocryphal… but Mailer’s anecdote was told to him by a prize-fighter about a mob boss who took out his gorgeous girlfriend with three champion boxers to the Stork Club. Mob boss Frank Costello demanded that each of the fighters dance with his girl. The last fighter suggested Costello dance with her as she suggested, to which he replied: “Tough guys don’t dance.”

Tough Guys is set in Provincetown

The idea is brought up in Jules Dassin’s (1911-2008 influenza) Night and the City (1950) when Mike Mazurki’s (1907-90) wrestling character The Strangler insults another wrestler calling him: “Dancing boy”. While in Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time …in Hollywood (2019) Brad Pitt’s character calls Bruce Lee a “dancer” before he beats him up.

Anyway, Ryan starts to relate to his father the “idiotic, crazy summer” he had in Provincetown. The film is set in this town with its rich history and geographical location, as the Land’s End of eastern US in New England, making it a great locale. Much has been said about the lighting and atmosphere of this place.

A nice portrait of Wings Hauser

It was during this summer at one of the parties that he met the local acting chief of police played by Wings Hauser (1947-), who features prominently – another hard-boiled character – who served in Vietnam. Ryan, incidentally, is an ex-con due to drugs and aspiring writer, who drinks and doesn’t write.

After the séance, Patty Lareine walks out on Ryan with her black chauffer. She is the one with the money which we learn later was gathered from a divorce.

“You and your dumb séance,” she says as she departs. Whether her reaction to the séance was real or not doesn’t matter, as you shouldn’t muck around with the spiritual world – a known horror movie fact.

“You make more money from divorce than a drug run,” says Ryan about her money. It’s a wonder people still marry. It’s not as if the banks have a monopoly on how to make money!

It’s one way to make a bit of money!

As Ryan admits when she has left: “She had been the largest addiction of my life – pure love, pure hate – all squashed up together.” He says this as he slices the head off a photo of Patty Lareine with a guillotine, something which has almost voodoo-like ramifications as the film progresses. But Ryan’s head is clouded by liquor, it’s his real addiction… and we also learn that love and addiction are not the same thing.

Perhaps it was a sexual addiction with Patty Lareine, something dulled and ended by the addiction to alcohol.

Farrah Fawcett was on set of Tough Guys

Ryan admits to his father that since she left his head hasn’t been quite straight – but don’t worry, he wasn’t a punk in the slammer that time he served three years. To his father’s relief… And by the way there were a couple of murders last week!

“My head’s been peculiar lately. I have blackouts… I hallucinate,” says Ryan, who doesn’t think he committed the murders. Sorry, I’m not quoting directly from the screenplay or book, so the punctuation may be different.

Despite all the spirits consumed and dancing around at night-time, this is not a six-pack movie. In fact, you will be very confused if you try and watch it drunk, kind of like Ryan – and being stoned won’t help either, I’d say.

Hauser gives his best performance in Tough Guys. Here in Deadly Force (1983) trailer

That the séance disturbs the sprits of two whores murdered 100 years ago will have a ripple effect, or it did have a ripple effect, leading to the gruesome murder of several people. That is the horror element as they are dismembered.

It is winter in Provincetown, off-season, when the place appears deserted except for the ghosts of the residents left behind once the partying has ended. Here you may ask yourself is this a ghost movie, or is this a dream movie? But it is more horrific to take it seriously as pure reality. Another Provincetown link with Mailer and the “two whores”, is claims a biographer was told by Mailer he fell prey to a “succubus” or female demon one night in a Provincetown house. He described the incident as “unpleasant” but I’m sure it would be nothing compared to the demons that visit Jonah Hill in This is the End (2013).

The hardcover for Mailer’s novel

In the movie it had all started five days previously, after 24 days without his wife. Ryan speaks of the “foul spirit” which comes after you lose a wife as we go into flashback. It was then that drinking at the local inn, a sluttish character turns up in the form of Frances Fisher with her queer “husband”. Ryan is soon screwing her in the parking lot in front of him. This bender leads to Ryan waking the next morning with a freshly minted tattoo on his arm reading “Madeleine” and the acting chief of police Hauser telling him to check his marijuana stash in the woods where Ryan finds a woman’s severed head.

It seems drinking to excess doesn’t help when it comes to conspiracy… it leads to more than paranoia… or in Ryan’s case – a set up.

Is it his wife’s head? Or is it Frances Fisher’s? Both were blondes.

The seance helps kick off Mailer’s “horror” movie

Ryan learns from a low-life at the séance that what they saw that night was: “Patty Lareine dead with her head cut off.” This character is linked to Hauser who rings and says they found Fisher’s “husband” dead in the trunk of their car.

“I’m just a country boy. I’d like to kill homos,” says Hauser.

“I dig law enforcement, it puts the good ones in uniform,” says Ryan in one of those lines in the movie which breaks the utter seriousness of it all. There are several of these passages that give the film its reputation as a black comedy, or even “camp” but it is far more serious than that. The term baroque has been used to describe the film and I take it as the meaning of a rough pearl…

Father and son have a few issues to go over

Hauser is apparently married to Ryan’s love of his life played by Isabella Rossellini (1952-). And the film goes further into flashbacks as Ryan remembers he and Madeleine – yes Rossellini is the tattoo – in love, or “trapped by love”. While they are together Ryan wants to write but he reckons he is not a good enough writer to delineate what he feels, instead looking up Screw magazine for couples curious enough to link up with other couples for sexual encounters. If Ryan can’t write how he feels, then maybe he should write a hard-boiled detective novel like Tough Guys Don’t Dance. Something perhaps suggested by the opening line of the movie…

They end up meeting the couple and one of them is Patty Lareine, who takes a shine to Ryan and says when she’s rich from divorce, she’ll look him up. Of course Ryan and Madeleine sleeping with this “Christian” couple disturbs their relationship, which leads to them arguing and crashing the car on the way home interstate, an accident which leaves Madeleine barren.

Isabella Rossellini in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986) trailer

This is Rossellini’s follow-up to Blue Velvet (1986), and while she is not a magnificent actress like her mother Ingrid Bergman (1915-1982), that previous film was a labour of love by her then partner David Lynch (1946-). In Tough Guys she is good but is outshone by Debra Sandlund (1962-) as Patty Lareine. This despite Sandlund being nominated in the 1988 Razzies for Worst Actress and Worst New Star.

Ishtar was far vastly inferior film to Tough Guys

Tough Guys was nominated for Worst Film and Mailer tied for Worst Director with Elaine May (1932-) for Ishtar (1987). Mailer was also nominated for Worst Screenplay. It’s all a matter of taste of course because the Independent Spirit Awards of the same year nominated the film for Best Picture!

“Do you write much?,” Madeleine asks the jaded Ryan when they meet again, as she admits to reaching orgasm five times a night with husband Hauser.

Ryan may still be in love with Madeleine, as he nearly had the tattoo of her name put on his forehead, we learn. And despite their respective marriages, there definitely is a spark as Madeleine suggests Ryan murder their spouses.

Frances Fisher in bar when she is about to let out “that” laugh

“Oh man! Oh god! Oh man oh god! Ohmanogod!,” says Ryan on a secluded Provincetown shoreline as he reads this suggestion in a note, in a hallucinatory scene where the camera spins 360 degrees over and over again. It is a scene that has copped a lot of flak over the years… why are they complaining? It’s excellent and in terms of the structure of the screenplay it ends the act well.

And talking in acts, there is a Shakespearian element in strong characterization and some of the dialogue – it’s almost street poetry. Something Mailer was comfortable with in his written universe. But here he has transposed his written word perfectly with an almost timeless piece of cinema with its peculiar – perhaps haunted – Provincetown setting.

Let’s take a break and then go straight into PART TWO.

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