Author and Biographer Justin Bozung on Norman Mailer’s Tough Guys Don’t Dance

Justin Bozung (1977-) is a biographer and author who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. A writer for many magazine publications over the years, he sits on the board of the Norman Mailer Society. An archivist of Mailer’s work, he is the host of the Norman Mailer Society Podcast. In fact, there is a ten-part podcast that deals solely with Tough Guys Don’t Dance which Bozung has lovingly produced. He is the editor of the book The Cinema of Norman Mailer: Film is Like Death. Here, in this interview, I show my ignorance of Mailer’s written word and experimental movies as we share our love and fascination for Tough Guys…

Justin Bozung

QUESTION: Tough Guys Don’t Dance has been described by Norman Mailer, perhaps tongue in cheek, as a “horror” movie, while others have called it a “black comedy” and even “camp”. How would you classify the movie?

ANSWER:  Well, I think it’s just as well if we don’t attempt to classify it.  I think Mailer would likely support or endorse my idea.  While he certainly did aspire to make a film that “looked” like a slick, Hollywood movie, (it most certainly does), what is often overlooked about Tough Guys is just how important it is as a companion piece with regards to anyone attempting to comprehend Mailer’s complicated cinematic philosophies and philosophical sociological concerns which first appeared in the early-1960s.   
When Mailer called the film a “horror” movie, he was suggesting such in the context that he was trying to convey a sociological horror; the film is his commentary on a bevy of sociological matters (greed, hedonism, etc.) as they were run amok in American life in the Ronald Reagan-1980s.  Many of the ideas that are running wild in the film date back to the 1960s where they first appear in Mailer’s writing.   Mailer was the first one to point that out;  he was fond of drawing an analogy between his Tough Guys novel/movie with his influential early-1960s novel, An American Dream, which is about a guy who kills his wife and gets away with it.  

An American Dream is also about murder and getting away with it

From the 1950s onward, Mailer was often at the forefront as a writer, natch, artist when it came to commenting in public on sociological concerns / socio-politico issues in America. However, at the start of the 1980s, he took a bit of a backseat; he stepped out of the limelight to a minor degree as he got older and really settled down and began crafting these monster books like Ancient Evenings, Harlot’s Ghost, and Oswald’s Tale. Wherein the 1960s he was writing essays and appearing on talk shows like The Dick Cavett Show to discuss the moon-landing for example, in the 1980s the majority of his public commentaries, in a lot of ways, were channeled into the film Tough Guys Don’t Dance.   As the film is an allegory on American Sickness, and especially so, things that he may or may not have found deplorable yet obviously present in American life in the first half of the decade.  

Who is bullying who on Dick Cavett?: The Mailer and Gore Vidal feud

Mailer was the first to admit that he was a “left-conservative” thinker; so, when you ponder the film with that in mind you can see how as the filmmaker he is playing God in a lot of ways in that he makes a choice to punish the hedonistic pursuits of the characters in the film as he kills each of them off one-by-one.   But, with that in mind, Tough Guys, is also, at least in my opinion, one of the great feminist statements of the decade.   As not only are Mailer’s female characters in the novel and film all incredibly strong, they are also masculine figures — and at some times, more masculine than the male characters.  The women in the story are not static; they are not backgrounded fodder — they are more ambitious, really they are even more ambitious than the men in the film and are the ones that instigate the narrative.

Bozung has, incidentally, also contributed to works on Stanley Kubrick. Perhaps I should have put Barry Lyndon as that one stars Ryan O’Neal!

The film is a horror film; the characters are in pursuit of something (love, money, drugs, revenge) and in the end, those that do survive, end up getting what they’re after. But, at what price?  Madden sets out at the beginning of the film to free himself from everything he finds disturbing in his world (hedonism, greed, masculinity), but in the end, he finds himself exactly where we as the audience find him at the beginning.  The film is like a roller coaster; the fact that it’s all over the place is what unfortunately helped it to solicit most of the negative responses it received from critics and audiences on its release.  Is it a comedy?:  Yes.  Is it a horror film?:  Yes.   A romance?: Indeed. You know, Mailer made six films from 1947 – 1987, and in a way, the film is the apex of his cinema; as it is the culmination of everything he was interested in pertaining to the cinema; it really does portray all of his ideas and philosophies as they were first hinted at in his literary canon in the years leading up to its release.  

The dogfight between Rip Torn and Mailer in Maidstone (1970). It’s interesting that Mailer made his first film around the time of the publication of his first book!

For example, he was talking and warning about the dangers of hedonism and the pure pursuits of pleasure in the late-1960s.  It’s always frustrated me when the film is labeled as a camp film.  In fact, I’ve personally felt that the term does more to harm a piece of art than it does to help us to understand it. “Camp” has always seemed like just another manner in which we box something inside of some restraints.  The whole thing is rather ironic.   Mailer didn’t like Hollywood films because he didn’t feel that they were authentic in the respect that they didn’t accurately portray reality;  yet, today, audiences often gauge whether a film is a success or a failure on that premise.   If a film isn’t “believable,” then, somehow, it has failed — and this in the age of the superhero blockbuster!? where reality is wholly removed.

A cover for Harlot’s Ghost

For Mailer, life, at any moment was a roller coaster ride.  At one moment, in any one’s life, they can be engaged in a horrific moment, and in the next instant, be laughing at that moment in retrospect.  Or in the next moment, they can find themselves in a Shakespearian drama, or in the middle of a farce, or a tragedy in the next — this was how Mailer approached the script, and the film itself.   And I agree with his assessment to a degree, even though the concept of reality is much more complicated than that from a philosophical point-of-view, but I digress.  

Mailer and Madonna

So, it has always seemed really ironic how the critics of the 1980s, when Tough Guys was released, criticized it for its unevenness and “campiness,” “bad acting,” or whatever, when, arguably, it was perhaps, most akimbo to as pure a presentation of realism within a work of fiction than some would contend to have created.  So, is the film “camp,” or is there a much more complicated aesthetic at play in the film?

QUESTION: To be honest I haven’t read Mailer. How does the novel of Tough Guys Don’t Dance compare to say Raymond Chandler?… It is very east coast and small town as opposed to Chandler’s Los Angeles… But many of the characters are definitely hard-boiled… some of them twenty minutes!

ANSWER:  Well, Mailer did re-read all of Chandler in the early-1980s before he set out to write the novel which transferred into the film.  So, the influence is indeed obvious.   Much of Mailer’s writing is cinematic anyhow; in fact, one of his most-used metaphors in his writings relate to the cinema.  He was forever comparing personalities to the movies.  Famously, of course, he helped to get John F. Kennedy elected to the office of the President of the United States.  He wrote a piece for Esquire in the early-1960s called “Superman Comes to the Supermarket” where he compared Kennedy to a movie star –no doubt, he hit the nail on the head, and especially so, because he was tapping into the unconscious of the American zeitgeist with such a suggestion. I mean, I can see a cinematic quality in Chandler’s writing — which is why it translated so well to the big screen. Mailer, as a boy, grew up in the 1930s and early-1940s, watching those Chandler films.  He loved Bogart.  The similarities between Tough Guys and something like The Maltese Falcon, for example, are really obvious.  Both films are very much about mood, atmosphere.  The plots are similar. Strange locations. Lots of talking, off-screen, kills, etc.  One place that fans of Tough Guys can get proof of the influence is on YouTube; Watch the “trailer” for Tough Guys online.   It’s the trailer with Mailer reading the responses to the film directly into the camera; it’s the whole “The Devil made this picture…” clip.   Watch that and look closely in the background; one can see a replica statue of the Maltese Falcon sitting on a table behind Mailer as he delivers for the camera.

Superman Comes to the Supermarket

The Chandler influence is also in the novel, as you’d imagine. The novel came about really because Mailer owed some money to his publisher and he needed to turn a book in fast, otherwise, he was going to have to pay his publisher back the advance money he had been sent.  So, he wrote the book rather quickly.  He knew he could write it quickly if he wrote a story about a town that he knew well, characters he was comfortable with …he lived in Provincetown. So, he knew about its rich history of pirates, prostitutes — it was the original landing spot of the Pilgrims when they first came to America. 

Serial killer Tony Costa in police custody

The story was also somewhat inspired by a serial killer that lived in Provincetown in the mid-to-late 1960s named Tony Costa, who killed women and buried them up in the sand dunes.  The Costa story had been something that he had thought using in his fiction or a potential movie since the late-1960s but had abandoned it until he had to write Tough Guys.

QUESTION: Back to Mailer’s horror tag and there is a supernatural element which stems from the séance with the “two whores”. Patty Lareine is obsessed with them – she even has their bed! I understand from an interview you did with Frances Fisher that Mailer may have been superstitious about ghosts etc… can you confirm this aspect?

Frances Fisher on the phone to Wardley

ANSWER: Absolutely! Yeah, he was very sensitive about those types of things.  Search Google for the Mailer Succubus anecdote.  He saw Provincetown as being a kind of locus for the supernatural.  Particularly: Race Point.  Scenes from the film were shot there– that scene in the picture where Frances Fisher is crying in the phone booth as she’s talking with Wardley, for example. And there’s certainly a supernatural aura that proliferates the movie as well.  There’s the Patty connection that you’ve pointed out, but there are other instances.  One moment in the film that I’ve always loved: the scene outside of the church where Tim is telling Patty that he’s a writer; if you watch that scene very closely, you will notice a gust of wind that causes Patty’s hair to flutter as if she’s conjuring the narrative as it will soon unfold.  And it does make sense:  if you’ve ever been to Provincetown it’s difficult to ignore the strangeness in the air that exists there.  It’s a very weird place.  It is Land’s End — which also makes it an ideal metaphor for the desperation of the characters in the book and movie.

QUESTION:  There is no doubt most of the men in the movie are “real men” and yet Ryan is a character who is kept by Patty Lareine… Thus his father’s continued doubts about him perhaps?

ANSWER:   Yes, that is part of the narrative; but there is also homophobia that runs throughout the narrative, even though, it is much more rampant in the book than in the movie. Yet, it’s another of the sociological concerns that Mailer wanted to explore within the story which was really prevailing in the era during the AIDS epidemic.

Is it true love for Isabella Rossellini and Ryan O’Neal in Tough Guys Don’t Dance?

QUESTION: Something ingenious about the movie is that while it touches on spirits and the drinking of spirits, it’s not a six-pack movie… you really have to concentrate, or you will get lost in the conspiracy like Ryan O’Neal’s heavy drinking character…. What do you think?

ANSWER:  To be sure…the film asks you to kind of stay one-step-ahead of the narrative.  This was one of the major issues that critics and audiences had with the film when it was released, indeed.  In fact, the actors were getting confused during the shooting.   They were constantly going to Mailer to be reminded of who-killed-who, etc.   Mailer, at a point, had a timeline created which he distributed to the cast and crew which delineated the narrative and broke down the scenes to explain exactly where in time the scenes took place, etc.   I don’t personally feel like it’s that difficult to follow, though.  I don’t think that films are meant to be viewed only once, but some might not agree with me.  I think the film demands multiple viewing, because, like with any piece of art your perception and understanding often changes with additional experiences, emotions, insights, etc.  The film has a wonderful dream-like quality to it, and the mise-en-scene is structured so well that it all serves as a metaphor for not just the notion of mystery, or trying to put the pieces together of a mystery in question, but also of Madden’s state-of-mind.

QUESTION:  The narrative is certainly labyrinthine to say the least… Mailer must have enjoyed writing the screenplay. Do you know how long it took for him to knock it out?

ANSWER:  I believe it took him just a couple of months. There were about 5 drafts of the screenplay that were completed prior to the shooting.

Provincetown on a sunny day. The post-Labor Day shoot of Tough Guys was troubled by bad weather.

QUESTION:  Do you know how long the shoot was? Mailer said in an interview there was an in-joke about the waves crashing against the building when Ryan/Tim awakes one morning, spraying the window. People wondered how it was achieved…

ANSWER:  The film began shooting around Labor Day 1986 and went in early-January of 1987. Mailer shot the film at his actual house in Provincetown,  which is located on Commercial Street.  During the film, there was quite a bit of bad weather that plagued the production, and those waves that are seen in the film were not created for the film, they were real, and luckily the crew managed to capture them during shooting.

QUESTION: And as for the title of the movie? Do you know where it came from? There is a perhaps apocryphal story on Wikipedia about Murder Inc’s Frank Costello… can you confirm its origin?

Frank Costello didn’t dance

ANSWER:  The title “Tough Guys Don’t Dance,” is from a story that Mailer was fond of telling about an interaction between “Two Ton” Tony Giuliano and Frank Costello.  There’s a really fun video of Mailer that is currently on YouTube where he recounts the entire story to Joan Rivers.   Mailer went on The Tonight Show to promote his novel of the same name in 1984 and told Rivers, Carson’s fill-in for that night, the story about the origins of the title.  Check it out. (ed. sorry couldn’t find it)

QUESTION:  Just at the end of the movie, Ryan/Tim will be a kept man again free to write and there are the strains of Land of Hope and Glory, I think… “Mother of the free…”. And then there is that guttural laugh when the door closes which echoes like Jessica Pond in the tavern again… it is a free, sexually liberated laugh… that Madeleine ends up with the cash is poetic, she’s the nicest girl of the lot… and yet she suggested killing Patty Lareine and her husband… is it just she who laughs last laughs hardest?… What’s your take on the ending?

ANSWER:   As I mentioned before,  Madden at the end is back where he was at the beginning of the movie; so, there is no escape for anyone who tries to push back against American sickness, the American way of life — and isn’t it terrifying?

The infamous “Oh man, oh God” scene

QUESTION:  The “Oh man! Oh God!” scene has copped a lot of flak over the years and yet it is one of the best parts of the movie… and I’m not saying it’s a bad movie… Mailer has produced a classic I think… Do you think he has done it through just one last roll of the dice movie-wise… kitchen sink and all? It’s unexpected considering his experimental work…

ANSWER:  The Oh God, Oh Man sequence, in a lot of ways, is really the most important scene in the movie, but also, the very apex of all of Mailer’s ideologies on cinema. When Mailer made his experimental 1960s films  (Wild 90 (1967), Beyond the Law (1968), Maidstone(1970)), he was experimenting and exploring his concerns with the reinstatement of philosophical Being and the premise of presentation of reality itself and how cinema didn’t portray reality.  So, in some way, the Oh God, Oh Man sequence is his being able to finally present — as close as possible — reality itself.  Because “reality” is, philosophically-speaking, subjective; so the crux of the Oh God, Oh Man scene is the capturing of Tim Madden’s instantaneous realization/epiphany, his reality — the Naked Lunch moment if you’re familiar with that book.

QUESTION: Do you think Ryan/Tim will ever write a book? If you watch the movie on a loop, which it seems to demand, Tim/Ryan comments:  “I keep saying to myself: ‘Death is a celebration’. “ It is a very literal beginning/ending if he can get it down on paper. The line could even be spoken after his father has died… after moving in again with Madeleine…

Mailer homages Walt Whitman

ANSWER:   Well, in the novel Madden is at work on a novel: “In Our Wild…”   The line “Death is a celebration,” at the beginning of the movie is Mailer’s homage to the same line in one of the sections of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, which echoes the metaphysical premise of rebirth, but also reinvention, I think.  So, perhaps, Mailer’s inclusion of the line at the beginning of the movie is his way of suggesting one of the major thematics of the picture, but he’s also telling the audience about what Madden hopes to achieve.

QUESTION:  I haven’t even touched on Wardley’s character, who is a man totally out of his depth as well… Ryan/Tim seems to understand him… you can’t help sympathise totally with Ryan/Tim in the end, he seems the gentlest and most passive of the lot….

The British VHS cover

ANSWER:  Well, reading the novel would shed some considerable light on the Wardley character and his past relationship with Tim Madden. Wardley truly is “out of his depth.”  He doesn’t fit into the scheme that the others have bought into, yet, in a way, he has either transcended all the sociological concerns with American sickness that Mailer is concerned about in the novel and film — or he’s the epitome of them.

The seance where Patty Lareine did or didn’t see her head cut off

QUESTION: Is there any other aspect of the movie I haven’t touched upon that you think is important? The dialogue and cinematography and acting are all first rate… A last word…

ANSWER:   The film speaks for itself.  You either like it or you don’t. I know that Mailer was pleased with the polarizing effect the film had on audiences.  Yet, the irony here is that the bad reviews and bad box office didn’t allow for him to continue making films. In one way though, the polarizing responses, speak to the true nature of art; which is that all art is subjective and no one person’s response is identical to the next person’s.  The film was nominated for a few Independent Spirit Awards when it came out and also a Razzie or two also.  Isn’t polarization one of the best definitions of what great art is supposed to be?

Here is a link if you want to purchase Justin’s book! Or take a sneak peek!

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