October 05, 1987 12:00 PM

The white-haired gentleman with the kindly smile reaches into his back pocket, slides out a wallet, laughs easily and mentions that he has something tucked away that he’d like to show. He is seated at the dining room table in his Provincetown summer home, an unfinished game of solitaire in front of him, a few of his older children out back on the deck. He has just been asked—how might this be worded diplomatically?—about the uneven advance word on Tough Guys Don’t Dance, the film he wrote and directed from his 1984 novel about bloodlust on Cape Cod. Norman Mailer has rarely taken unflattering evaluations of his talent benignly.

He hands over two neatly folded sheets of paper filled with audience comments from screenings of the film, which stars Ryan O’Neal and Isabella Rossellini. Mailer has drawn little arrows connecting each negative (“vile, inane, insane…”) to a contradictory positive (“bold, innovative, wonderful…”). “The only thing I ask,” he says, reasonably, “is that if you print five lousy ones, print five good ones.”

Whatever else he has been in his life, this Mailer, the one who makes films, is an unassuming fellow, taking no offense at even the unkindest comments about Tough Guys Don’t Dance. Feminists, homosexuals, former New York City mayoral candidates and other people he has provoked might think this a cynical guise, but it seems sincere. Mailer yearns to continue making movies and worries that he will get no more chances. He made three unappreciated, low-budget movies about 20 years ago, and he says, “They left me prodigiously dissatisfied—dissatisfied that I couldn’t make more. If this movie doesn’t do well—given my new precepts of realism—I can’t go around knocking on doors. It’s not pride that would prevent me, but knowledge that unless I have a successful commercial record nobody will let me.”

It seems curious that a man recognized as one of the two or three greatest writers of this generation would achieve more happiness from directing movies than from writing novels, but that is unquestionably the case. To employ one of those sports metaphors he loves so well, he is a Hall of Fame pitcher who longs to hit one out of the park. “It’s more fun making movies than anything else I can do,” he says. “More fun than skiing, traveling or deep-sea fishing. Writing a novel is an excruciating activity; when I’m in the middle of one I often feel like a monk in the wrong monastery. A novel is a personal creative act, and it’s all yours if it’s any good. When you make a movie, unless you’re a genius as a director, which I am not, you’re not being creative as much as you’re an aesthetic engineer. You’re working with the talents and the crafts and the strengths of 50 or 60 people. Working alone all my life, parts of me are starved to do the opposite.”

There was an excellent reason why two decades passed from the time Mailer directed Wild 90, Beyond the Law and Maidstone until anybody trusted him to do another film. Those movies were incomprehensible. Says Mailer, “I’m sure [Tough Guys co-producer] Menahem Golan must wake up at night saying, ‘I gave $5 million to a crazy man.’ ”

Even his wife didn’t like those early films.

Norris Church Mailer, 38, describes them as his “cinema verité-underground-whatever-you-want-to-call-them-movies.” In her seven-year marriage to Mailer, a remarkably compatible one considering that he was married five times before and did bodily harm to wife No. 2, the subject of those movies comes up as infrequently as possible. “We don’t have huge fights, but he’d have been happier if I liked them.” She throws her hands in the air. “I’d have been happier if I liked them too. They are one of our bones of contention.”

On credentials, he should win all household debates. He has won the National Book Award and two Pulitzer Prizes; he is also, recent graciousness notwithstanding, more pugnacious than Norris. She is a former Wilhelmina model who now writes both plays and screenplays and paints bizarre but compelling canvases. (She was also one of the literati of Russellville, Ark., which is where she met him when he passed through on a 1975 lecture tour.)

Luckily, she likes Tough Guys. So do many critics, although others have gotten nasty. Nor are audiences exactly dancing into the theaters; the first weekend gross was a disappointing $421,390. Mailer allows there are faults in the film, but will not participate in any dissection of his work. “I will let the critics discover the flaws for themselves,” he says. “Movie critics have a certain resemblance to pit bulls, and I don’t see any point in touching up my shoes with blood.”

That sounds more like the Norman Mailer of old, but the barbs lack passion. It may be that he is so intent on making movies that he refuses to offend anyone, even critics. It may also be, as he claims, that he has never been as belligerent as his reputation suggests. Mailer says, “Stories about you that never were accurate are now 20 years old and are now a psychological reality to people who meet you for the first time.”

Mailer is walking up to his house, returning from a drive to the Provincetown dunes. Approaching the gate at the same time is a young man who has been invited by one of Mailer’s daughters to come over and see the house, the grandest in Provincetown. This is the young man’s first meeting with the author. Intimidated, he steps back. Mailer invites him in and pours him a glass of iced tea. He could not be more kind.

The Mailer summer house is a solid brick structure set amidst lesser houses of weathered grey shingles. Inside it has bleached floors, white furniture and pale oriental carpets. The attic, where Mailer works, is darker and more traditional; he used it as a set in Tough Guys Don’t Dance. “I don’t like having the richest house in town,” he says, “but I do and nobody is feeling sorry for me.”

Perhaps as compensation, although it probably has more to do with the notoriously shaky Mailer finances, he resides the rest of the year in an undersize apartment in Brooklyn. It is a fourth-floor walk-up but an exceedingly elegant one with a panoramic view of the New York harbor. The tiny living space has been expanded dramatically by an adroit architect who eliminated the attic, raised the ceiling to the roof and added two tiny bedrooms that seem suspended in space.

While in the city he writes in a separate office, in longhand. His last major novel, Ancient Evenings, which was published a year before Tough Guys Don’t Dance, took him 11 years to complete. It was not well reviewed, but he continues to write novels, as much for financial reasons as creative ones. “My bad motive is just as important as my good one,” he says. “I owe my publisher a book and he’s already paid me.” He describes the work in progress as “a large, difficult novel” and says he will certainly do another after this one is finished, perhaps as many as three. Norris seems to find this less of an option than he does. From his six marriages Mailer has nine children (one a stepson), the oldest 38. “With our youngest child 9 years old,” Norris says, “he has to keep his nose to the grindstone.”

Mailer talks often about his creative mortality and wonders how much longer a man of his age can write well. “As you get older,” he says, “you have to become more realistic about your strengths and your weaknesses. Life is less forgiving. When you’re 20, you can start a story, do a marvelous beginning, then go out and get drunk because you’re so talented that you deserve it. You wake up, your head is destroyed, the story is lost, and you say, ‘There’ll be others.’ That’s youth. When you get older, you don’t get drunk. You want to be able to work in the morning.”

Quietly, he takes back the heavily creased sheets of screening room comments, folds them carefully and puts them in his wallet. Then he returns to the kitchen to mix fresh glasses of iced tea. He seems very comfortable in his Provincetown home, surrounded whenever possible by visiting children and their friends. “I’ve mellowed,” he admits, pointing out that his powers of domination diminished dramatically after he married a woman “26 years younger, three inches taller and infinitely more beautiful” than himself. He has even become friendly with Gore Vidal, with whom he conducted a literary feud that was more intense than profound. (The bookshelf in the Provincetown house contains two Vidal novels, Creation and Empire. Deducing from the dog-eared pages, one concludes that the reader only got to page 101 of Creation, page 14 of Empire.)

“I’m not morbid, but anything I do could be the last thing,” he says. “I’ve become more serious, naturally. It’s a biological process. I want to do work that’s important to me.” He is 64 years old, and that is no age to be sitting in a small office or up in an attic, writing in longhand, all alone.

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