Thursday, November 06, 2008

Oh, The Places I’ve Been!: Tough Guys Don’t Dance (1987)

Call it premature nostalgia. I visit a place and immediately make plans for a return trip with a book or movie set there. Which is why, as I walked the streets of Provincetown, Massachusetts last month, I decided to watch Tough Guys Don’t Dance again.

The movie, written and directed by Norman Mailer from the novel by Norman Mailer, is a product of the Go-Glo ‘80s. When Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus ran Cannon Films, they cranked out properties high and low. When the movies were good, they were serious, adult, auteur-driven titles like Barfly. When they were bad, they featured Michael Dudikoff. (The Golan-Globus factory produced one of my favorite films of that decade, Runaway Train.)

Tough Guys was one of Cannon’s highbrow projects. I haven’t read Mailer’s book, an exploration of masculinity in the guise of a detective story. I do know that the movie is a borderline-camp frenzy of purple prose, Byzantine plotting and gay panic.

I sought it out after reading about its controversial debut. The story I remember is that when Mailer’s two-fisted drama was greeted with laughter, he cagily rechristened it a black comedy. When he got away with it, I knew I had to see the movie.

It soon became clear to me that I was in over my head. I only saw Tough Guys once, but some of its dialogue has never left me. A few favorites:

I am so wrong for this kind of imbroglio.

(My husband) gives me five orgasms a night. That’s what I call him. Mr. Five.

I just deep-sixed two heads.

I’d say the last line in the gravelly tones of Lawrence Tierney. Because of the inflection, Rosemarie assumed I meant “I recently murdered a pair of hippies.” She was stunned to discover that the line is to be taken at face value: I have of late disposed of two severed skulls.

Ryan O’Neal plays a recently divorced ex-con turned aspiring writer prone to alcoholic blackouts, Norman Mailer being unafraid of saddling a character with baggage. Tierney turns up as O’Neal’s dying father, and O’Neal recounts in a series of Russian doll flashbacks how he came to be in possession of the aforementioned detached craniums.

Like you can follow the plot. O’Neal does what he can with an unplayable part. The performances range all over the map. John Bedford Lloyd as a Southern wastrel is right at home, as is B-movie icon Wings Hauser playing deranged police chief Alvin Luther Regency. I never forgot that name. I also never forgot the scene where O’Neal, the poor bastard, is forced to repeat “Oh, man! Oh, God!” as the camera swirls around, a shot that cinched the movie’s cult status. (Mailer admits it was a mistake in the documentary on the 2003 DVD. He also calls Tough Guys a “subtle horror film.” So much for black comedy.)

When I first saw the movie, I was a budding young cineaste who didn’t know anything. Rewatching it now that I have some knowledge of noir conventions, I spot layers that were lost on me back then. And I realized that I like Tough Guys Don’t Dance. It’s a movie that’s hellbent on taking you on a journey, even though it has no idea where it wants to go. It’s also batshit crazy.

The film’s best feature is its feel for off-season Provincetown, beautiful in its windblown isolation. The inn where my friends Barry and Buzz were married is one of the movie’s key locations. I have now downed bourbon in the same room where Ryan O’Neal swilled the stuff. That’s no small accomplishment.