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Tough Guys Don’t Dance


‘…for bad movie fans, it’s a masterpiece of over-ripe dialogue, ridiculously melodramatic situations, and rabid, macho posturing that curdles the moment it hits the screen…’

Tough Guys Don't Dance (1987)

‘Oh man, oh god, oh man, oh god!’ is the only possible response to Norman Mailer’s one and only swing for the cinematic fences with his incredible-for-all-the wrong reasons thriller Tough Guys Don’t Dance. The writer turned director turned laughing stock when this pretentious neo-noir hit screens back in 1987; producers Cannon films has also just funded Jean-Luc Godard’s utter fiasco of King Lear with Woody Allen and Molly Ringwald, so it’s quite possible they had some soul searching of their own to do. That said, Tough Guys Don’t Dance isn’t bland or boring, and at least smacks of authorial choices, even if some of them are perfectly awful.

In a role that seems to have pretty much ended two decades of leading man status, and some great work for Kubrick and Hill (Barry Lyndon, Driver), Ryan O’Neal plays a struggling writer who finds himself struggling with a massive coke habit. O’Neal’s well-publicised drug issues certainly add an air of verisimilitude to his performance here as Tim Madden. Tim wakes up in a well-heeled Privincetown house with a mysterious tattoo and a missing wife; in one of the better visual flourishes, Tim updates the number of days she’s been missing, writing numbers in shaving foam on his bathroom mirror every morning. Is corrupt cop Luther Regency (Wings Hauser) to blame? You’d hope so given Hauser’s silent movie acting excesses here, but there’s a few bits of detection to be worked out first, with Tim unwisely getting involved with his local swingers scene.

While many of the events portrayed here seem improbable, one would have to assume that Mailer knew something about what he was writing; certainly, the amount of macho bragging by all the characters speaks of Mailer’s own authorial voice. So maybe the bags of severed heads are his invention; the grafting of detective-movie clichés onto post-modernist arty navel-gazing doesn’t go smoothly. And then there’s the now famous ‘oh god oh man’ scene in which Tim discovers how badly he’s got things wrong; Mailer stood by this scene, even if his star didn’t, but it would have undoubtedly have been binned if Mailer knew that it would be the one and only thing his film would be remembered for. It’s not just O’Neal giving a bad line reading; the music, the direction, everything about this is truly diabolical. For those yet to experince it, the full scene 30 second is linked to below.

Tough Guys Don’t Dance is trash, but it’s amusingly self-important trash, a film that lays open the vanities and miscalculations of the creative force behind it; Mailer’s reputation as an author suffered as a result of this over-reach, and left him high, dry and doing cameo shots in The Gilmore Girls. But for bad movie fans, it’s a masterpiece of over-ripe dialogue, ridiculously melodramatic situations, and rabid, macho posturing that curdles the moment it hits the screen. Over 30 years later, we’re still talking about Tough Guys Don’t Dance, and raging on the coastline like Lear ‘Oh man, oh god…’ is the only sensible reaction.




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  1. Absolutely brilliant zingers in your review! The book was better though not one of my top 5 for this guy whose career spanned 6 decades, 6 wives, and 9 offspring. If you can wade thru the movie, this line, uttered by Tim/protag’s dad, is telling: “Six months ago, they told me to stop (drinking) or I was dead. I stopped. Now the spirits circle my bed and tell me to dance. I tell ’em, “Tough guys don’t dance.” They answer me, “Keep dancing.” Mailer kept dancing with words, spawning a literary non-fic genre of writing, and too often writing what he knew lst hand–drinking, doping, lusting, boasting, fighting, protesting…

    In an interview, Mailer said the book title came from something a boxer(?) said when he insisted his 3 colleagues dance with the women he brought. When 1 asked, why don’t you…? he uttered the famous line, much better than Ryan Neal’s diatribe dialogue. IMO, all O’Neal offered was a pretty face. I’m at a loss as to what to call the movie: Noir macabre murder mystery campy satire??? When I watched the flick back in late 80’s I was interested in where he was going with the headless women… Another line from the book, in Italian, clarified it for me: ‘I realized, then, the only real test of strength–muscle tone, sanity is the ability to sustain the impact of one question after another without even the shadow of an answer.’

    • Oh god, oh man, what a great comment.! Points off for not mentioning Jack the Ripper, although the headless women bit nearly counts…yes, this film is unclassifiable, and for ironists only, but it’s a useful taster for Mailer. He’s not as widely read now, for the reasons you describe; his first hand activities were better lived than experienced through prose. He had talent, but his subject, himself, hasn’t worn well. There’s a strange emphasis on fellatio here which I’m not even going to attempt to unpack. But as your final quote showed, he was a master of 5am party’s over sentiments, and had the talent to nail that down with this film, even while story, structure and tone eluded him…

  2. Mailer was also the driving force for cultural acceptance of I Am Curious Yellow and if you dig back to old newspapers ads you will see his name giving it the big push.

  3. Hmm…I like trash treasures but this one doesn’t appeal to me. I really just dropped by to ask if you’re going to take one for the team and suffer through the 4 hour Snyder cut so we don’t have to…..

    • haha that’s a great question. There is no way I’d even watch a trailer for a Justice League recut, in fact, I think I should get a medal for sitting through the short version. These comic book movies seem to be in an echo chambers of fanboy critics who think the rest of the world cares about their boring, silly movies. So that would be a firm no, are you planning to take in the fun and frolics of the Snyder cut?

      • Hard no for me. I’ve got a list as long as my arm of movies I really want to see, and I could see 2 (maybe 3!) of them in the time it would take me to watch it. I am curious enough, however, that I will read a few reviews. That ought to tell me all I need to know 🙂

        • I see the word ‘boring’ popping up quite a bit, which if you were bored rigid by a two hour version, well, a four hour one doesn’t appeal….of course, there’s a few nerds screaming about the version we deserve, but I really don’t want to deserve this kind of slop…maybe it’s a masterpiece, but I can’t imagine the circumstances via which I’d find out…

          • Sadly, I don’t have hbo max and I don’t know when/if it’ll get a bluray release. So I suspect it is going to be a while before I am able to.
            That makes me very sad, because I CAN tell you it is going to be awesome.

            • Well, I CAN wait to find out what you thought because it looks like a right load of old waffle.

              • Then today is your lucky day. Because unless you’re going to buy me a years subscription to max, that watch date is going to be on indefinite hiatus.

                • Then that indefinite hiatus will be my lucky indefinite hiatus. Besides, even once you fork out for Max, there’s still a fresh charge for premium content, right?

  4. I’m kind of afraid to watch that 30second clip you put in. If it’s what the movie is known for and nothing else, what am I letting myself in for?

  5. Mailer was always swinging for the fences, even in stuff like Wild 90 and Maidstone. I admire his barbaric yawps. His movies aren’t very good, but he really threw himself into them.

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