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Criminally Underrated: Tough Guys Don’t Dance

Ryan O’Neal is my ringtone. When a call comes in, a bombastic soundtrack fanfare announces the actor as he shouts, “Oh man! Oh God! Oh man! Oh God!” It’s from a YouTube clip titled “Worst Line Reading Ever,” from Norman Mailer’s film adaptation of his novel, Tough Guys Don’t Dance. The clip does not demonstrate fine acting, but in the context of the movie, O’Neal’s reading makes perfect sense. It’s not even the worst line reading in the movie.

I come not to praise Tough Guys Don’t Dance as a good movie, but to defend it as a living movie, an example of the kind of lousy cinema that breathes and captures the imagination more than a conventionally good movie can. Its overheated plot and over- the-top performances, from art house goddess (Isabella Rossellini) and B-movie ham (Wings Hauser) alike, are horrifying by any standards of acceptable taste and quality. But the vigor with which these performers throw themselves into absurd roles makes the movie thoroughly watchable and never less than compelling.

As a writer Norman Mailer is best known for his new journalism classic The Executioner’s Song, and an overheated prose style. A typical line from his late career novel Tough Guys Don’t Dance runs, “the long dingy undergarment of the grey New England winter, gray as the spirit of my mood, came to visit”.

Mailer won two Pulitzers. But as a director he’s no prize-winner. Criterion recently released a set of his early films, the most famous of which is the nearly unwatchable Maidstone. In that film, Mailer played a thinly disguised version of himself, Norman Kingsley, a writer/activist/politician running for office. The film is most notorious for a sequence near the end: Rip Torn, one of the few actual actors in the film, is genuinely frustrated with Mailer, and comes after the director with a hammer. The two call each other by their real names, and Mailer decided to leave this bit of real life machismo in the film. It doesn’t save the movie.

Elsewhere in Maidstone, Mailer/Kingsley tells a would-be model/actress/bedtime companion that, “When I cut the movie, what I’m going to try to show … is you’re going to slide from one reality to another.” In this film, he never establishes any other reality than his own macho self-indulgence, and can’t get a compelling visual or performance out of it to save his life.

Tough Guys Don’t DanceMailer would not direct again until 1987. With actual production values and a cast of professional actors, Tough Guys Don’t Dance miraculously achieves this sense of unreality, starting with the concept of Ryan O’Neal as an authorial alter ego, and going downhill from there. Or is it uphill? Tough Guys Don’t Dance is one of those terrible, wonderful films, filled with incompetent plotting and writing and over-the top acting from a cast that gives it as much as it can, even though they may not know what it is they’re giving it to.

In the Worst Line Reading Ever clip, O’Neal has just read a letter from Isabella Rossellini, suggesting that she would kill her husband so they can be together. O’Neal walked down to the beach to read the letter, as is his melodramatic wont.

As O‘Neal emotes, the camera spins 360 degrees around him. Mailer is on record saying that everyone on the set, from O’Neal to his producers, begged that the scene be cut, and he admits that they were right. It’s a terrible scene. But at the same time, it’s a fantastic scene. Besotted with filmmaking, the camera careens around this bad actor in a funhouse distortion of Douglas Sirk, and comes up with something wrong but more alive than you’ll find in most films that play by the rules.

It’s an accomplishment merely to take plot elements together like dismembered heads in a damaged reproductive system and squeeze out of the cinematic sausage machine a fully formed black comedy. But there you have it. What actor today has the balls or the chops to take a line like “Because you’ve got no womb!” and make it sing like Wings Hauser?

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