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LEE MARVIN: POINT BLANK by Dwayne Epstein (Schaffner Press)

LEE MARVIN: POINT BLANK by Dwayne Epstein (Schaffner Press)

Dwayne Epstein may not have intended to spend nearly twenty
years working on a biography of Lee Marvin, but had he not started in the
mid-1990s he would have missed the opportunity of interviewing the actor’s
older brother, many of his directors (from Sam Fuller to John Frankenheimer),
and an even greater number of friends and costars. With tireless research and
access to so many people in Marvin’s orbit, including his lawyer, his longtime
agent, and his first wife, Betty, Epstein has crafted a thorough, intimate, and
highly readable portrait of this imposing actor who became an unlikely star.

The trajectory of that career is unusual. Following combat
service in World War II—which may have fueled his lifelong alcoholism—Marvin
took an unexpected shine to performing, studied briefly in New York, then made
his way to Hollywood, where he quickly built a reputation as a reliable and
recognizable supporting player in the 1950s. But despite scene-stealing moments
in films like The Big Heat, he felt
that he was running in place and not achieving the name recognition he
deserved. Starring in his own TV series, M
, accomplished that goal and fattened his bank account, but he hated
the grind of television and got out as quickly as he could.

Now he was better known, and still in demand for
feature-film work, but his range of choices was limited. He wasn’t a
traditional leading-man type, at least not in the early 1960s. Fate, and an
aggressive campaign, won him a well-deserved Academy Award for his performance
as Kid Sheleen in the comic Western Cat
(1965), which finally pushed him into the front ranks and opened up
new opportunities. Films like The
and The Dirty Dozen
made him a bona fide star. Unfortunately, his winning streak was brief, and
some pet projects like John Boorman’s Point
and Sam Fuller’s The Big Red
, a decade later, didn’t succeed at the box-office. It’s only in
retrospect that these films have acquired the reputation they always deserved.

Marvin was a complex man. He was proud of his service during
the war, but it left him with problems that, Epstein speculates, might be
classified as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder today. His erratic behavior,
indifference to fatherhood, and often-crippling reliance on alcohol strained
some relationships and destroyed others.

He took pride in his craft, however, and despaired over the
eroding quality of Hollywood movies in the 1970s and 80s; he worked less and
less, and ultimately said yes to some mediocre projects that weren’t worthy of
his talent.

Epstein covers all of this and more. He even offers an
appendix that lists film projects that might have been. (Apparently, Francis
Coppola offered him the role that went to Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now.) This book may not rank as great literature, but I
doubt anyone will ever match its breadth and depth in assessing Lee Marvin’s
life and career. The actor’s son, Christopher Marvin, contributes a poignant
afterword about his father.

LEE MARVIN: POINT BLANK by Dwayne Epstein (Schaffner Press)

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