During his lifetime, it often seemed as if no one was as invested in burnishing Norman Mailer’s literary-lion reputation than Mailer himself. In between crafting major books and taking bold political stands, he played the provocateur with public appearances distinguished by obnoxious self-aggrandizement and sometimes shockingly offensive repudiations of others. The notion seemed to be that it was Norman’s world, and the rest of us were lucky to play supporting roles. And that’s roughly the context for Maidstone, the last in a trio of grungy independent movies that Mailer wrote and directed from 1968 to 1970. (Nearly two decades later, he made the more conventional Tough Guys Don’t Dance, one of 1987’s biggest flops.) Maidstone is a textbook example of creative indulgence, a home movie with famous participants and lofty ambitions. In its ramshackle way, the picture tells the story of Norman T. Kingsley, a controversial filmmaker who runs for U.S. president even as he casts his latest opus. Much of the picture comprises clashes between Norman (played by Mailer himself) and his tempestuous brother, Raoul (Rip Torn). Their conflict climaxes in a brawl that was reportedly improvised, with the real-life Torn smacking his frenemy’s head with a hammer and drawing blood. With all due respect, one can’t blame him for lashing out, because Mailer’s self-important bloviating is as tiresome as his shapeless filmmaking.
Shot entirely at a posh country estate in the Northeast, the movie comprises scenes of Mailer/Kingsley boasting that he’s about to reinvent cinema (his new project is “an attack on the nature of reality”), coupled with scenes of Mailer/Kingsley cataloguing the nation’s political ills. Somehow important to expressing these themes are myriad shots of topless women, plus dull vignettes of young ladies making out with Mailer and/or Torn. In one scene, Mailer/Kingsley uses clichéd “jive” talk while communicating with a black actress; in another, several characters wander across a field while the soundtrack comprises nothing but a woman moaning in sexual pleasure. True students of Mailer’s work might find resonant tropes here, and Maidstone unquestionably captures something about the experimental artistry of its historical moment. Nonetheless, while Mailer likely thought himself the most interesting man in the world, Maidstone proves he was not.