Provocative, rebellious, a genius and an undeniable force on the American literary landscape, Norman Mailer was an author, social commentator, filmmaker and a personality whose outsized figure nearly eclipsed his two Pulitzer prizes. He had enough experiences and adventures for three lifetimes, and trying to capture him in a documentary and uncover what made him tick is a monumental task. And so Joseph Mantegna‘s (not the actor), less-than-90-minute film “Norman Mailer: The American” barely scratches the surface, giving a superficial, fast-forward look at his life, with a focus more on the tawdry and salacious, than on the influences and inspirations behind a writer who was equally celebrated and vilified throughout his career.
Are you looking for anything regarding insight into his novels? You won’t find it here. Mantegna is in such a hurry to get to the incident in which Mailer stabbed his second wife, which he followed by spending 17 days at Bellvue, that all we learn about “The Naked And The Dead” is that he had to use the word “fug” instead of “fuck” and that the follow-ups “Barbary Shore” and “The Deer Park” failed to match the acclaim and sales of his first outing, leading to a decade-long break from fiction writing. In fact, most of his writing is only touched upon perfunctorily, with very brief, not even Wiki-worthy mentions of when they were written, and what they tackled. More time is spent on the story about how Mailer was pissed off that he was invited to Arthur Miller‘s house only to find out that Marilyn Monroe wasn’t there, than on his actual book “Marilyn.” The most space is given to Mailer’s last novel, “The Castle In The Forest,” mostly likely because Mantegna was able to get a pretty good clip from “The Charlie Rose Show” where he talks about it.
And indeed, the straining budget on this film can be felt. Most of the interviews are relegated to family members, who essentially spend 80 minutes talking about the conflicted nature of Mailer’s desire to be there for his spouses (he was married six times) and children, and his inability to be a good husband and father. But Mantegna does very little to go outside the Mailer circle, to hear from both adovcates and critics of his work. Instead, he leaves “context” to be explained by a clip from “The Dick Cavett Show” in which Gore Vidal and Mailer square off, throwing barbs at each other. (Sidenote: It says something about the decline of culture that at one point having two literary guys like this on a talk show was no big deal — where on Earth could you see something like this now with as much exposure?). And charges of Mailer’s misogyny are left to be answered by his son, whose explanation is more or less: “Dude, my Dad like, totally liked women.” Deep.
But Mantegna’s most exploitative turn is spending a good chunk of the film on a excerpt from Mailer’s 1970 curio “Maidstone,” the third of four films he directed. He focuses on an improvised scene in which Rip Torn hits Mailer in the head with a hammer, angrily surprising the writer who bites a chunk out of the actor’s ear as they fight on the ground, while Mailer’s ex-wives (cast in the film as well) and children look on in horror. But going one step further, Mantegna plays the scene back to one of the ex-wives and films her reaction. To what end? We have no idea. The only other time Mantegna dips into Mailer’s movie career is to talk about his last film “Tough Guys Don’t Dance,” with the only clip he chooses to show (straight faced) being the viral favorite Worst Line Reading Ever. How did Mailer’s filmmaking inform his writing or vice versa? Don’t ask because you won’t find out.
“Norman Mailer: The American” is a squandered opportunity all around. Mantegna had access to him, but either didn’t know what to ask or couldn’t get past the basic 101 on the writer. For devoted fans, the doc will be a miss due to its flimsy, cursory approach while those hoping to at least get a primer will also be ill-served by the shoddy overview that prefers scandal to substance. Mailer was a man who lived through and documented some of the most profound political and cultural changes in American history but you wouldn’t know that from this doc. Devoid of context and hardly a true appreciation of Mailer’s contribution to literature and journalism, ‘The American’ is a deep disappointment. [C-]
“Norman Mailer: The American” is on DVD now.