Norman Mailer: The American

Norman Mailer: The American


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Ten novels, nine children, six wives and one considerable ego: Norman Mailer was an American phenomenon. Credited as one of the founders of the New Journalism (along with peers including Truman Capote and Hunter S Thompson) he was a founder of The Village Voice, a Pulitzer Prize winner, an avant-garde filmmaker and, incidentally, a damn fine boxer. He's also known for heavy drinking, brawling and stabbing one of his wives. Many commentators struggle to reconcile what are commonly perceived as very different aspects of the man, with tributes to his literary greatness often leading to apologism for his aggression. By looking at the whole, this documentary does a good job of summing up an individual whose complexity was the cornerstone of his achievements.

It takes a certain moral distance to achieve this. One of the striking things about the wives interviewed here is how similar they all sound, how devoted, describing Mailer's sweetness and then going on to talk about how difficult it was to leave him once they had children; one can't help but note his success at seeking out certain character traits. Even Adele Morales, still shuddering as she recounts his violence, clearly adores him. The wives appear like chapter headings as the film unfolds, taking us back to Mailer the family man; in between we are reminded of the way he wove sexual and misogynistic violence into much of his work, uncovering reservoirs of anger in the American psyche. There's political anger, too, gradually developing a more sophisticated foundation as we travel through the writer's life.

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Early work tapped into the inarticulate frustration many Americans felt with their political system, but Mailer's famous attack on the salesmanship of John F Kennedy was a cultural milestone. This is neatly acknowledged alongside a brief glance at Mailer's burgeoning Kennedy obsession, though perhaps we don't quite see enough of that here. There's a discussion of his work on Marilyn Monroe but little about his conviction that she was murdered for an affair with Robert Kennedy.

In sidestepping some of these more nuanced indications of Mailer's obsessive thinking, the film inevitably risks glamourising him (which hardly seems necessary after he spent a lifetime doing it himself). We hear about the drink and drug-fuelled rages, but these seem like something anybody could have in the wrong circumstances, and only Adele briefly suggests that there might have been deeper problems. In combination with the wives' loyal attempts to normalise him, this creates a situation where it's harder to appreciate the rawness that he drew on for his work. Consequently, the film works better toward the end, when it is less sensational but offers more intellectual depth. Recorded interviews with the elderly Mailer reveal a man whose acute social and political insight was finally being turned on himself.

With such a dynamic subject, this is a film which is bound to intrigue and perhaps inspire the viewer. Most of what it has to say can be found elsewhere, but it puts it together well and its assemblage of archive material is impressive. Just remember to keep looking behind the legend if you hope to catch a glimpse of the man.

Reviewed on: 25 Jan 2011
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A documentary portrait of the American literary phenomenon also known for his filmmaking, his boxing and his aggressive attitude to women.
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Director: Joseph Mantegna

Starring: Norman Mailer, Muhammad Ali, Beverly Bentley, William F. Buckley

Year: 2010

Runtime: 108 minutes

Country: US


Glasgow 2011

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