It would probably be impossible to make an uninteresting documentary about the life of Norman Mailer, and director Joe Mantegna’s Norman Mailer: The American is not interesting. It is absolutely fascinating.
Relying on a wealth of film of the never-camera shy author himself interwoven with revealing commentary from wives and lovers, friends and enemies, Mantegna creates a warts and all portrait of a complex man, who at times managed to be a writer of genius, at times an egomaniacal reprobate.
For all his flaws, and there were many of them, Mailer, who passed away in 2007, had the kind of personality that could infatuate some, infuriate others. Those that loved him seemed to love him no matter what he might do; for those that hated him, he could do nothing worthwhile.
Mantegna begins with some information about Mailer’s parents, his childhood, and even his early writing success with a prize winning short story while at Harvard, but the real focus of the film is the prominence that he achieved with his debut novel The Naked and the Dead, a book many people still consider his finest piece of work. This is a man who had six wives, nine children, and who knows how many mistresses. This is a man who managed to get a murderer freed from prison only to have him murder again; a man who stabbed his second wife and persuaded her not to press charges; a man who marched on Washington to end the Vietnam War, and can be seen in a movie doing his best to bite off Rip Torn’s ear.
There is a good deal about Mailer’s writing. “Why do I write?” He has said: “Why did I start to write? Because it was the only thing I was good at and I wanted to be more attractive to the girls.” That’s Mailer at his best, a little false modesty, a bit of a wink, and you know damn well he doesn’t mean a word of it. The critical failure of the novels he wrote after the phenomenal success of his first book left him seriously depressed. He turned to journalism and non-fiction, and in effect invented his own new genre for his reportage—History as a Novel/The Novel as History: creative non-fiction. He wrote about people and he wrote about events. Eventually he returned to the novel, and once a again found acclaim. He won two Pulitzer Prizes and was still writing up to his death. He never took his craft casually.
There is also a good deal about his personal life. His sexual peccadilloes are trotted out with gusto. His brawls, both physical and intellectual, are itemized with special emphasis on a film of the fight with Torn and the contretemps with Gore Vidal on Dick Cavett’s TV show. His career as a political provocateur, from his anti-war activities to his race for mayor in New York, is illustrated. He is shown in the context of the sweeping societal changes that were shaping the country in the latter half of the 20th Century. The major figures and events of the period, whether the presidency of LBJ or the emergence of Muhammad Ali, are always cited to provide the background needed to understand how the times helped to make the man.
There are touching moments. Mailer looks back on his bar mitzvah speech. His wife Adele reads from a letter he sent from the Pacific during the war. There are moments that make you cringe. His wife describes the crude language he used where his mother was bound to hear. There is film of screaming quarrels with his fourth wife. He can be witty and urbane. He can be gross and boorish, but he can never be boring, and neither can any decent documentary of his life. Montegna hasn’t merely brought the man to the screen, he has brought him to life.
Cinema Libre’s DVD runs 85 minutes. Bonus features include the film’s trailer, a gallery of letters from Mailer to his wife Adele, and some further interview material with Mailer.