‘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.