There are few things sexier in this life than seeing a young, virile Rip Torn go medieval on acclaimed writer, wife-beater and underground filmmaker, Norman Mailer. This may sound like some wondrous fever dream but sometimes magic happens in real life and such an incident not only occurred but was documented in Mailer’s 1970 film, Maidstone. This event was so monumental that already half-whispered legends are born from this moment, including some speculation that Torn was tripping to the gills on acid for two days beforehand, but that’s just the tip.
Artists are mere flesh and blood, too, but with more passion, madness and imagination than the average person, so when they fight, it can quickly turn into a dark, more violent version of Destroy All Monsters. This is exactly what happened behind the scenes on the set of Maidstone, one of three underground films that Mailer directed in the late 60’s. (The other two being Wild 90 and Beyond the Law, with Torn also starring in the latter and the former being written by D.A. Pennebaker) The essential back story is that Mailer changed some key elements from the original script, including an alluded-to brothel sequence. Add in Torn, being the passionate artist that he was (and undoubtedly still is, even if his underground film days are long behind him), some potential chemical and physical exhaustion, all adding up to method acting going one step further.
In the film, Torn’s character, Raoul, the half-brother of famed director and presidential candidate, Norman Kingsley (Mailer), plots an assassination of his politically ambitious and arrogant kin. Torn begins the scene, letting Mailer know only when he clubs him on the head with a hammer. This is no stage magic, though, as they wrestle to the ground, both bleeding for real, with Torn’s coming from a vicious bite on the ear courtesy of Mailer. The tussle is something to behold, with Mailer grunting like an enraged caveman and Torn remaining cool as a cucumber, even saying, “No baby. You trust me?” Mailer pulls a chump move by acting like all is forgiven, only to attack Torn when his defenses are briefly down. But Torn, despite being smaller in size, deftly pins back him down and starts to choke him, when Mailer’s on-screen and real life wife, former-model and actress Beverly Bentley, realizing that the bloodshed was real, starts to scream and freak out, making the Mailer-children brood scream and freak out too.
From there, the battle continues, but with words instead of hammers and fists. Torn is clearly hurt and using words like “fraud” repeatedly, while Mailer tries to he-man it up, coming across like an Ivy League brat playing Hemingway. What’s amazing is, despite all the drama, Torn still manages to one-up Mailer, with one of the highlights being when, off screen, one of the Mailer children says, “don’t fight any more.” It is Rip, not Mailer, who responds, saying “That’s right baby, no fighting. It was just a scene in a Hollywood whorehouse movie. Okay baby? You know it’s okay and your Dad knows it’s okay.” Then he whispers under his breath, looking right at Norman and smiling maniacally, “Up yours.” What’s the best Mailer can come up with? “Adios.”
It would be easier to feel bad for Mailer if he didn’t reek of ego and macho bravado, all in stark contrast to the very earthy and naturally masculine Torn. On top of that, the man was a notorious blowhard with a history of violence against women, including stabbing his second wife Adele Morales. That’s not to say he wasn’t a talented writer and to his credit, the whole reason we are blessed to have this phenomenal fight to enjoy is that he actually included it in the film. Rare moments of slack aside, seeing the young, wild-eyed Torn best Norman Mailer is a borderline-harrowing gift of wonder.
Thankfully, Criterion, as part of their Eclipse series, has recently released not only Maidstone, but also Wild 90 and Beyond the Law as a two-disc set. So now a new generation of fringe film viewers can get a peak into late 60’s underground cinema and see the evolution of one of the greatest working character actors today.