The seemingly unkillable Norman Mailer is dead of renal failure. He was 84. As well they should do, most obituaries are noting Mailer's nigh-Nobel worthy body of work--his supreme novel of World War II, for instance, The Naked and the Dead, filmed in a heavily bowdlerized version by Raoul Walsh. Mailer's less known work as an actor and director needs to be memorialized separately. As a larger than life personality, given to public brawls, with his noble battered oversized profile worthy of any senator or any prize-fighter, Mailer was made for cinema. Milos Forman used that big silhouette of Mailer's to play the architect Stanford White in Ragtime. Paralyzingly boring avant garde director Matthew Barney co-starred Mailer as Harry Houdini in Cremaster 2. (1999). The TV film version of Mailer's famous bio of murderer Gary Gilmore, The Executioner's Song made Tommy Lee Jones a star. So Barney, last seen on screen filleting Bjork with Japanese whale-flensing knives, seems to have hired Mailer as an allusion to Gilmore's belief that he was a descendant of the famed magician.

Some of the longer obits mention the kind of Mailer misbehavior that broke out, whenever there was a camera near. Most infamous is Mailer's chomping on Rip Torn's ear on the set of his 1970 film Maidstone, after Torn came at him with a hammer. Here's the footage of that famous bout, complete with swanky French subtitles. We're hearing less about Wild 90, where Mailer got into the face of a Doberman Pinscher and outbarked him. I think he was the first actor to have done this, but it's something you see frequently on screen today, whenever some actor wants to show that he's tougher than a dog. Pauline Kael later summed up by saying that on film Mailer "tried to will a work of art into existence, without going through the steps of making it."

Less seen, even, than Mailer's directoral efforts is the 1979 Hegedus/Pennybaker Town Bloody Hall, a documentary version of Mailer's stark bollocky crazy book-lengh essay Prisoner of Sex, in which Mailer clashes antlers with a tag-team of feminist all-stars, including Germaine Greer, Village Voice poet Jill Johnston, Betty Friedan and Susan Sontag. Also obscure is the English version of Mailer's An American Dream, risibly AKA'd as See You in Hell Darling with Stuart Whitman, Janet Leigh and Aug 1966 Playmate of the Month Susan Denberg as Ruta the German maid. Some of these films were shown at The Mistress and the Muse: The Films of Norman Mailer, which played at Lincoln Center in NYC this summer; here's Michael Chaiken's interview with Mailer about his films. And perhaps A.O. Scott's positive review of the retrospective gave the old self-promoter some pleasure.

categories Cinematical