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

*contains spoilers

Who knows who has murdered who? It’s all a mystery as Hauser presses down on Ryan … Is it a frame?

Isabella as Madeleiene is Ryan’s true love

Hauser was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award as well and it is probably the best performance of his career as he drinks hard, smokes pot in his office and tops off a tale he tells Ryan with: “Because it turns me on! I’m a law enforcement officer and it turns me on!! Does my story turn you on?”

“You didn’t tell it well enough,” says Ryan in one of those moments of deadpan levity.

Patty Lareine is involved with the plot, Frances Fisher too, which involves a bag containing drugs and two million dollars. Also turning up in the final act of the movie is the husband Patty Lareine divorced for all the moolah. He is another gay character who knew Ryan from their schooldays together at Exeter where they got expelled on the same day. Life is full of coincidences.

“Your knife is in my dog,” says Ryan after an attempt is made on his life, in what is turning out to be a hellish five days. And it is then that he wakes to his father sitting in his kitchen… ready to relate to him the story already told.

Father and son continue to bond over hard liquor as Tierney works out a plan

It’s time to clean up the mess, as it is obvious someone is trying to pin a murder rap on Ryan… there are two heads in the cellar. It’s time to “deep six the heads” as his father takes a trip out to sea with an anchor: “Because you don’t have the balls… and I love ya.”

I’m jumping over plot points now, with Hauser dressed in his Green Beret uniform with a machete off-screen, and Patty Lareine’s ex-husband wanting revenge as he spouts Mailer’s overripe dialogue effeminately in a Southern drawl of the best gothic fashion. His character Wardley is a man driven mad by his greed and the greed of others in particular.

Wardley played by John Bedford Lloyd is a character way out of his depth

It is here the mystery is resolved in the sand-hills at night in front of a campfire. It has to be watched and concentrated upon as the film goes into flashback again, this time from Wardley’s point of view, showing Frances killing her “husband” – even though Wardley wasn’t there!

“I am so wrong for this imbroglio,” whines Wardley as we learn Patty Lareine, Hauser – all of them, perhaps not Madeleine – are in on it. And Patty Lareine’s head has been cut off!!

That the “two whores” are murdered, like the two called up during the séance at the beginning of the movie, goes to show you shouldn’t mess with the supernatural, or even pretend to mess with the supernatural – let alone get involved with drugs or divorce for profit!

Mailer directs in the sand hills of Provincetown

“The bed in my house used to belong to two whores killed in Helltown 100 years ago… invite those whores into you and me!,” Pattie Lareine continues, totally obsessed by making money while you sleep… as well as the whores.

The meaning of the “two whores” can also be seen as the demonising of female sexuality, often by other females, and how it has echoed down the ages since the times of Mary Magdalene… she was also known by the name of Madeleine. The story of Mary Magdalene is that she supported Jesus and his ministry and that she had seven demons driven out of her that were transformed into the Seven Deadly Sins. It was later that the legend she was a repentant prostitute grew. Thus the sainted Madeleine of Tough Guys Don’t Dance links biblically as well with the supernatural element. She really wasn’t a whore but possessed of demons and is saved by the Christ figure – in this case Ryan. And she supports him in the end.

Magdalene/Madeleine – apostle or harlot?

As for the movie, we soon know where and who the bodies are and who put them there… But, wait, there is a happy ending… everyone dies, including Hauser who has a massive stroke upon hearing of Patty Lareine’s demise… foolishly calling Madeline’s Italian character “small potatoes” who finishes him off…

As for the two million dollars?! Well, we go back to the beginning of the movie and the acceptance that death is a celebration… and that laugh. Is it Madeline’s or Frances Fisher’s laugh? The two are interchangeable. It is a ghostly laugh. The laughter is the sane laugh of the dead former porno actress Fisher as she laughs at a joke by a man she thinks is cute. It is a ghostly laugh visiting their new home. The film was made during the height of the AIDS era. Is the spectre of AIDS in there new home with a newly infected Ryan? Do the whores have the last laugh?

Then to go on a loop and Ryan says: “I keep saying to myself: ‘Death is a celebration’.”…

Reagan era AIDS activists, a period of sexual paranoia and infection

Is Tough Guys iconic because it looks at the dark side of the American Dream in the tradition of many of the best movies. Yet the chase in Tough Guys turns out to be an alcoholic illusion/delusion. The American Dream and The Hollywood Dream are close to being the same thing. And Mailer’s American/Hollywood Dream is captured even if it is told in a schizophrenic and jumbled way and not a straight narrative. Those swallowed by madness as they are caught up in the undisciplined hedonism of the Dream… is all encapsulated in Ryan’s character.

That his character’s surname is Madden and the love of his life Madeleine only underlines the word “mad”. Then there is the schizophrenia of Hauser’s character when for a split second “the maniac” appears only to succumb to a stroke.

Hauser shortly before he has his stroke at the climax of Tough Guys

Mailer said he wanted to create a subtle horror movie. He said: “Horror is really in the mind, when it encounters elements it can’t quite dominate”.

This can lead to the horror of madness and paranoia from real or perceived conspiracy. That sense of domination: Is that why some “real” men are scary or try to be? Alpha males.

A near innocuous cover of Screw magazine

Mailer leaves the ending ambiguous and that is not a weakness, as in “real” life, there is a slight ambiguity to Ryan’s sexuality – certainly in his father’s eyes – but really his is a balance of the masculine and feminine. Most of the other characters in the movie are strong and overtly masculine – even the female characters. Ryan supports his masculinity with the sex act, something that distracts him from writing… preferring to look through Screw magazine.

So the horror of not being a real man, you may end up an effeminate homosexual like Wardley. Even if you are a “real” man, there is always that tension of outmanning the other man in an alpha sense. That Tierney’s character is the sage throughout: he is still a “real” man although there is probably no doubt he is impotent. Thus the spirits visit him in the middle of the night alone and not when he could be screwing a woman. Tierney says with some duality, albeit separate from the masculine/feminine argument, which you could also argue is the same when you talk about madness – that schizophrenia is a cure for cancer and that cancer maybe a cure for schizophrenia. Incidentally, in the book, Tierney’s character’s cancer goes into remission.

A mugshot of Ryan O’Neal

Reflecting further on schizophrenia being the state of America as a nation. The madness of a nation that has been in more wars than any other in the last century or more – the madness of masculinity and war. Then there is the madness of too much fun or hedonism leading from recreational use of alcohol and drugs and sex into psychosis and criminality and the madness of murder.

Mailer said the madness of the United States could be compared to a marriage, with its ups and downs etc. That the marriages in Tough Guys are for different reasons from love or money both drive the characters to murder and madness.

Mailer even boxed with O’Neal in the 1970s

That the women in the movie are masculinized to the effect that they will rival the men when it comes to having the Dream of money and sex overcomes any maternal instinct. There is not one child in the movie… Otherwise it is a great father/son movie, especially the ending. And Mailer said his use of Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance music at the end was because of his memory of his father and his ties to the United Kingdom.

Mailer was definitely a “real” man, a man with a “macho intellectualism”. I don’t know about his relationship with his father.

Vera Lynn sings Land of Hope and Glory to Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance

But it sounds like one like Ryan and Tierney – it was solid. Or that’s how Mailer wished it to be! And he would also wish the same for his own son. A good family and father and son relationship is a cure for schizophrenia and it is a cure for a nation as well, caught up in its own excess and pursuit of money and pleasure.

It is the paternal Reagan era after all. Forgotten are the little things like father and son dumping bodies casually together from a boat!! Fishing together by any other definition.

Tough Guys was made during the paternal era of the Reagan presidency and AIDS. Be paternal and masculine – or die of AIDS! Or end up killing yourself like Wardley. There is no doubt there is a homophobic streak in Tough Guys but it is inherent to the material.

Former President Ronald Reagan in bed with Bonzo in Bedtime for Bonzo (1951)

But also look at the tragedy of Madeleine. She cannot have children, whereas the “two whores” who die in the end seem to have no interest in family – only pleasure and money. Madeleine at the end will have no family but she will have pleasure and money. Perhaps it is her laugh at the end as she who laughs last, laughs hardest. Madeleine is the brave modern woman. Ryan is the modern man who accepts Wardley’s homosexuality. In that sense they are the perfect couple… perhaps they will adopt… but I think I am going into a loop like the movie can be viewed.

The Big Sleep (1946) was based on Raymond Chandler’s novel of the same name

Tough Guys Don’t Dance is a dense masterpiece. It is obviously Mailer’s love letter to Raymond Chandler. As a former reader of fiction novels, I am tempted to read the book, but as a cinephile, I want to keep the movie quarantined, as I love it so much.

For me, it was Chandler who wrote one of the great American novels in The Long Goodbye, although perhaps no-one would agree with me. Just the title alone, along with The Big Sleep, are great. Watch the 1940s movie version of The Big Sleep and you can see why Mailer described Bogart as a kind of surrogate uncle, as it influences Tough Guys in many ways – especially in the nearly impenetrable plot. The Big Sleep is famous for one of the murders not being solved and even Chandler famously said he didn’t know who committed it. Compare to Tough Guys and after one viewing try to tell me who put the heads where!

Bogart with The Maltese Falcon

I have never been to Provincetown where the movie and book are set. It is where the Pilgrims first landed and where the first atrocities were committed along with a history of whalers and pirates and a section of the area called Helltown, which was a collection of drinking holes and brothels. Thus there is mention of Helltown, often in the movie, and of the spirits that inhabit the place. In that sense the setting is a purgatory for the ghosts and characters that remain there and for Ryan to perhaps start his novel with the words: “Death is a celebration”, he is looking on the bright side of moving onto the next plane of thought or existence. Escaping purgatory.

Mailer at work

As for the writer being the main character in Tough Guys, impotent that he is in that respect… The writer must face his ideas like Ryan does his face in the morning, whether he brushes his teeth or shaves or whatnot. If he doesn’t write down those ideas, they can begin to back-up in his dreams or his subconscious, which can lead to psychological trauma, like Ryan. Mailer says its tough to be a writer, kind of like being a coal miner. It’s dreary and yet the reality is on the page. Or staring back at you in the mirror in the morning! I think Ryan’s character wrote the book.

Mailer has so many ideas in his movie, the amazing thing is that as director of Tough Guys he has remained disciplined enough to give us a deliberately incoherent, yet ultimately coherent film. It is a total growth spurt after Maidstone. It takes patience from the viewer as it did with Mailer creating the thing. That this film came hot on the heels of Blue Velvet and features Isabella Rossellini from that movie and the same music composer Angelo Badalamenti (1937-) is probably no coincidence. Tough Guys has a slight association with the Lynchian universe albeit under the influence of alcohol and not LSD.

The Tough Guys trailer is interesting as Mailer reels off reviews of his movie. Note the Maltese Falcon in the background.

But I have bored you enough with what could be reams more on the film. Just watch Tough Guys Don’t Dance for its characters, its ensemble of actors, its moments of modern conversational poetry, its black levity at times, its Provincetown setting and try if you can, to concentrate on its plot. Mailer definitely had the big picture in mind and the film deserves to be watched more than once. The tragedy of this film is that is was a critical and financial disaster and thus ended Mailer’s career as a film director, a career, despite the man being already in his sixties, which promised so much!

If you want to read an interview with Mailer aficionado Justin Bozung about Tough Guys Don’t Dance PRESS HERE.

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