My father, Norman Mailer, once wrote that film exists somewhere between memory and dream. We recall a film—a good film—the way we recall our memories: fragments crystallized in our minds as visuals of a dream (or a nightmare), points of light dredged up from our subconscious.
I experienced my first taste of filmmaking when I was five years old. I was unwittingly a glorified extra—a “day player” in showbiz parlance—and had my debut as a witness to my father’s near-death at the murderous hands of Rip Torn. The film was Maidstone, my dad’s third and final attempt at underground filmmaking—cinéma vérité style—in the late sixties.
The cast was comprised of friends, ex-wives, athletes, and movie stars, with a few gangsters thrown in for good measure portraying some warped and far-out version of themselves—persona extensions on steroids, if you will. They were summoned to Gardiners Island—a bucolic piece of land somewhere off the Hamptons’ coast—to vow their allegiance or disaffection toward a certain Norman T. Kingsley (portrayed by whom else), a retired porn director running for president of the United States. Why not, after all? Qualifications for higher office being what they are, you might argue that it was a prescient conceit. Those who arrived immediately drew tags from a hat identifying whether they became the candidate’s friend or foe. Though technically neither knew the other’s position, over three strenuous days the cast would exercise their voices, feelings, prerogatives, and in one case an assassin’s impulse.
And like those stories you hear of people being invited to spend a weekend in jail—some as jailbirds, others as the jailers—who take to their role with psychotic zeal, so too did Gardiners’ denizens act out their respective parts with manic intensity. I can’t help but look at Maidstone—when I can look at it all objectively—as a testament to why the sixties ultimately imploded. The movie embodies indulgence to the point of mental hazard. And yet the film stands the test of time as a sociological statement.
Cutting to yours truly: For some reason in the midst of the film’s preparation, one or both parents decided it was a good idea to bring the family along. So into the vortex trotted my older sisters—Danielle, Elizabeth, and Kate—my younger brother Stephen, and myself. We soon found ourselves unwittingly part of the cast, filmed as cherubs wandering through the island’s fields. But that’s where the idyll ended.
As the movie was winding down, Rip Torn, who putatively was playing Norman T. Kingsley’s ungrateful brother, Raoul, realized that the only way he was going to save the film was by killing Norman T. Kingsley, or more poignantly, Norman Mailer, on camera. To that end in the final hours of shooting, Rip attacked Norman with a hammer to the head. Thank God, dad had a hard head which may have spared him some brain damage while he lost a healthy pouring of blood—head wounds bleed like crazy—all of which commingled with Rip’s bloody ear as Norman retaliated by gnawing on his earlobe.
And there we were, mother and children as eyewitnesses to the bloody carnage. My mother, exercising full lung power, started screaming at the cameramen to do something. However, the esteemed Pennybaker and Leacock realized they had something better to do—keep filming. Why waste cinematic gold when they had it at their fingertips? Rip, after all, was right. It was the ending the movie desperately needed. Nonetheless, bearing witness as a child was hard on the system, and to see yourself many years later on film watching the assault brings back a host of mixed feelings. (The clip is available on YouTube—for better or for worse.)
Before my father died we discussed the impact Maidstone must have had on my young psyche, and we laughed at the discovery that it was clearly the reason I went into the film business. It was my first traumatic experience, and the best way of dealing with trauma is by journeying into its heart—confronting it head-on, so to speak. Ergo, my career choice.
As a postscript, my dad and Rip repaired their friendship. Art, after all, is thicker than blood. And while my dad had a few stitches in the head, Rip ended up in the hospital with an infected ear. When Norman visited Rip’s bedside, Rip told him that a human bite was far more infectious than a dog’s. My dad replied, “I should have bitten the whole thing off, then.”
I became friends with Rip—perhaps as part of my trauma therapy—and ended up casting him as a co-lead in a film I produced called The Golden Boys. During the shoot, Rip would regale me, along with the cast and crew, of Maidstone-related tales. One was a funny story about him suing Dennis Hopper for libel. Hopper claimed that Rip attacked him with a knife on Easy Rider’s set after being told Jack Nicholson would replace him. Rip won the case on the irrefutable claim that he could not have possibly knifed Hopper because he was, at the time, on Maidstone’s set trying to kill Norman Mailer.
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