'Norman Mailer: The American': Was He the Most Valiant and Most Disgusting Patriot of All Time?
Depending on whom you speak to, Norman Mailer was either one of the most important writers of the 20th century or an unrepentant sexist pig. Or maybe both.
Joseph Mantegna’s intense, if sometimes vague, film about the bombastic author, Norman Mailer: The American, celebrates Mailer’s astonishing output—he wrote 39 books, including 11 novels, as well as screenplays, poems and progressive political commentary, efforts that won him two Pulitzer prizes and countless other awards during his 60-plus-year career. But the documentary does more than highlight Mailer’s achievements, using archival footage, home movies and interviews to explicate his personal foibles, missteps and conceits.
A father of nine and granddad of 10, Mailer was married six times. His second marriage, to the former Adele Morales, was highly volatile and included frequent bouts of drug- and alcohol-fueled violence. The pair made headlines when, in 1960, a drunken Mailer stabbed Adele in the gut during a house party. In the film’s most horrifying scene, a now-80-something Adele matter of factly recounts the assault. The pain on her face speaks volumes as she recalls lying on the floor in a puddle of blood, listening to Mailer rant that he wanted to “let the bitch die.” Thankfully, the evening’s other revelers didn’t listen—Adele was somehow transported to the hospital—but Mailer’s coterie of apologists begged her not to press criminal charges against the literary giant. She complied, fearing the repercussions of sullying his reputation and career.
That other folks, lots and lots of women and many men, were willing to associate with Mailer in the aftermath of this incident attests to the man’s incredible charisma and forceful personality. It’s also what made him a compelling storyteller and powerful interviewer.
A founder of the Village Voice and one of the first writers of creative non-fiction, Mailer charmed his sources, capturing stories that other journalists missed. A profile of John Fitzgerald and Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, for example, for the first time presented political figures as flawed, complex and real. He vigorously opposed the Vietnam War, taking on conservative writer/editor William F. Buckley to champion the cause. He marched on the Pentagon, risking jail and countering the idea that journalists needed to be dispassionate observers in order to write. His coverage of the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago was also a first as he focused not only on the machinations occurring inside the confab, but also on the protests and overt police brutality taking place outside, in the streets. In subsequent years he wrote about a range of issues including the launch of the Apollo 11, boxing, God, Hitler, incarceration policies, and Marilyn Monroe. His editors quickly learned that he would not be pigeonholed by narrow ideology or already-trod themes.
His non-literary exploits included a losing run for New York City mayor in 1969 (his campaign centered on making the city the 51st state) and participating in televised debates with such luminaries as Germaine Greer and Gore Vidal. Archival footage of his interactions with Vidal, woven into Norman Mailer: The American, reveal Mailer’s bluster and fire—and viewers see that he minced no words in lampooning Vidal’s affect and intellect. But despite his verbal acuity and love of provocation, it was Mailer’s acumen as a writer that galvanized the public’s attention and paid the bills.
His 1979 release, The Executioner’s Song, delved into the mind of Gary Gilmore, a man executed by firing squad in 1977 for the murder of two Utah men the year before. Although the award-winning 1,056-page tome is now considered a classic look at criminality, the film glosses over Mailer’s relationship with Gilmore. Similarly, Mailer’s relationship with writer-murderer Jack Abbott--author of the 1981 bestseller, In The Belly of the Beast, an exchange of letters that detailed the realities of Abbott’s imprisonment--gets even less attention and will likely send curious viewers on a search for more information.
Yet despite these omissions, Norman Mailer: The American does an excellent job of presenting the contradictions that made Mailer Mailer. Ex-wives, ex-lovers, friends, foes, drinking buddies, and family members speak on camera, giving the film a compelling intimacy. “He was the tree and we were the birds that flew between the branches,” daughter Betsy tells director Mantegna. Other interviewees dub Mailer “a hellraiser,” “a rock star,” “a tyrant,” and “a wild man.” Still others laud his sense of humor, his unflagging humanity and his consistent support of the underdog.
By all accounts, Mailer was macho and demanding, exacting and driven, hotheaded and passionate. But he could also be kind, generous, funny, and devoted. Like most people, Mailer was a mass of contradictions. Indeed, when he died in 2007 at age 84, he had both reported the story and been the story. A working-class Brooklyn Jew, Mailer could be fierce and tender, loving and ruthless. Small wonder that he continues to command our attention as an iconoclastic American original. Mantegna’s film showcases an unforgettable character, neither wholly likable nor wholly detestable; a man who left his mark not only on the world of letters, but on those he encountered throughout his long and unpredictable life.
Norman Mailer: The American, an 85-minute documentary film directed by Joseph Mantegna, released May 2012. Distributed by Cinema Libre Studio,www.cinemalibrestudio.com, 818.349.8822; $19.95. For more information, go to www.normanmailertheamerican.com.