On numerous occasions Norman Mailer told interviewers that Hemingway was a big influence. That’s clear in the writing, but especially obvious from his lifestyle. Born 24 years after the burly, bombastic writer-adventurer, Mailer lived life the way Hemingway did. He was a brawler, a boxer, a boaster, and a frequently married man who seemed to need a new relationship in order to find the inspiration to write. Hemingway had four wives; Mailer had six. Hemingway hobnobbed with celebrities, and so did Mailer. Hemingway won the Pulitzer Prize, and Mailer did too . . . twice (for The Armies of the Night and The Executioner’s Song). Both men exaggerated their own wartime experiences and milked their service for fictional purposes, just as both men wrote cutting-edge material—Hemingway, what would later be termed literary minimalism, and Mailer, what people called New Journalism. Both men claimed to love bullfighting, with Hemingway wearing a Cuban guayabera shirt, and Mailer a bullfighter’s shirt with ruffles.
Both men were drawn to alcohol and Mailer marijuana as well, but Hemingway never lost a libel suit the way Mailer did after he wrote an article about a no-name boxer for Playboymagazine, and Hemingway was never arrested for stabbing his wife, as Mailer was. Hemingway was also never arrested for protesting war, the way that Mailer was. And Hemingway didn’t start a newspaper, as Mailer did (The Village Voice) with two other men. Hemingway also didn’t make and direct avant-garde films, as Mailer did. In addition, while the sexually active Hemingway might have dreamed of threesomes, Mailer apparently experienced them. And yes, Hemingway was never mentioned in a Beatles song, as Mailer was (in “Give Peace a Chance”), or ran for mayor of New York City the way that Mailer did.
All of that is here in this fascinating documentary, “Norman Mailer: The American,” which won Best Documentary at the Orlando Film Festival, Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival, and the California Film Awards. It captures Mailer on film and in interviews over different periods in his life, and also includes footage from the most infamous and outrageous moments in his life—like the 1971 Dick Cavett Show on which Mailer appeared with his literary enemy Gore Vidal. After Cavett commented how Mailer, when he came onstage, conspicuously shook everyone’s hand except Vidal’s, it was all downhill from there. There was nothing physical, the way it got in the Green Room backstage when Mailer head-butted his rival, who smacked him back, but the insults and derogatory jokes flew faster than the ball at a table tennis championship.
Here too is extended footage from “Maidstone,” the 1970 film Mailer directed and starred in that took an infamous turn into brutality. Actor Rip Torn (“Men in Black”) thought the film needed something to liven it up, so he attacked Mailer, hitting him on the head with a hammer. Mailer responded by jumping on top of him and trying to bite his ear off. Meanwhile, Mailer’s wife was screaming and threatening to hurt Torn, and Mailer’s children were crying more loudly than anyone, obviously traumatized.
It’s all part of Mailer’s wild and crazy life, and what makes this film so delicious is that no one holds back. Just as Mailer admits to an ambivalent attitude about America—loving it and hating it at the same time—his children, former wives, and former friends reveal a similarly conflicted view towards Mailer. And they don’t just offer superficial responses. Some of them have obviously put a lot of thought into trying to analyze Mailer and his actions. His second wife, Adele, remarks that “Something changed” in Norman. After scorching negative reviews of the three books that followed the debut novel—The Naked and the Dead—that made him a very rich and famous writer, “I watched him come apart,” she says. “He was angry at society. He was gonna take it down.”
Mailer could be charming one moment and vicious the next—another Hemingway trait. But he was an influential writer who predicted “Camelot” and the Kennedys’ rise, and who put his finger on the “hipster hero” before anyone else. This comes out as well, but there are also behind-the-scenes details—like the deep-seated resentment that Mailer felt for Arthur Miller, who lived in the same Brownstone as Mailer while the two men were writing Death of a Salesman and The Naked and the Dead, respectively, when Miller married Monroe, whom Mailer had written about . . . and fallen for.
“Norman Mailer: The American” features previously unseen footage of Adele Morales Mailer’s revelations about the stabbing incident, and there’s more original footage from others as well.
But what I appreciate most about this documentary is director Joseph Mantegna’s journalistic sensibility. There’s no clear plot-line or thesis, and contradictory statements and opinions abound:
“He loved women”—Mailer’s son.
“He was a real enemy of feminism”—the lesbian lover of the woman who had a threesome with the Mailers.
“The only woman he was ever married to was his mother”—Mailer’s second wife.
“I probably had as much of a love affair with marijuana as I did with any human being”—Mailer
“I think he was bisexual”—an ex-wife.
“I thought he was gay”—another guy.
The clips are assembled, the former friends and children and wives and colleagues are taped on-camera, and there’s tons of vintage photos and footage of Mailer in action. Ultimately, though, it’s left to viewers to draw their own conclusions. And I really do appreciate that.
Typical of a clip-heavy documentary, the video quality varies considerably. Some are quite rough, others not so grainy and blurred. But the fact that there is so much footage is a real treat. “Norman Mailer: The American” is presented in 1.78:1 aspect ratio “enhanced” for 16.9 monitors.
The audio is a Dolby Digital 2.0, with Mono throughout much of the documentary. It’s a non-factor, really, given the archival quality of most of the clips.
Aside from the trailer, an excerpt from that Cavett show with Vidal, one of Cavett with Ali, and scans of Adele’s letters from Norman, the extras are outtakes: Old Norman on fiction, the writing process, and writers as celebs, and Middle-Age Norman on the moon, success, and campaigning. All are brief.
A documentary is only as fascinating as its subject, and, love him or hate him (most did the latter), Norman Mailer was one fascinating American.