Tough Guys Don't Dance (1987) from Tuna and Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Tuna's words in white:

Norman Mailer finished Ancient Evenings, an epic about ancient Egypt, which he had spent years on, and decided to take a year off to recover. After ten months, his publisher, who had been paying him a monthly stipend, ask him where the book he had been working on was. He had two months to write a novel. He chose to set it in Provincetown, as he knew the town like the back of his hands, and cranked out kind of a horror mystery/thriller. He has a fondness for the book, not because it is the equal of his Pulitzer efforts, but because it was so easy to write. While he was cranking it out, it occurred to him that the story was inherently cinematic, and he decided to do a screen treatment, which he was finally successful in selling to Golan & Globus. The process took a while, not because the script was that bad, but because Mailer wanted to direct the film himself.

The results are interesting.  The awards and nominations at IMDB are worth examining:

Independent spirit nominations for Best Cinematography, Best Feature, Best Supporting Male, and Best Female Lead. Razzie for Worst Director, and nominations for Worst Picture, Screenplay, Picture, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actress and New Star. Something clearly doesn't jibe here.

I found the film a convoluted thriller with a non-linear time sequence, filled with interesting characters, decent performances, and beautiful photography. It was, however, very uneven, and sometimes confusing. A lengthy making-of with Mailer explains much of this.  Mailer goes on to explain casting decisions, which were almost always ones he didn't like at first, explains that the performers brought things to the story that he hadn't even considered, and praises them as perhaps the best ensemble cast of all time. He cast Ryan O'Neal in the lead because he had always admired him when they both boxed in the same club. Unfortunately, their relationship soured when Mailer insisted on keeping a very bad scene in the film, even though everyone told him to lose it. It made O'Neal look like a fool. O'Neal was quoted after the film release as saying Mailer was a jerk. Mailer agreed in the featurette that he was, in this case, a jerk.

The plot:

O'Neal wakes up and hears a noise downstairs. He discovers his father, who is dying of cancer, and whom he hasn't seen in a year, sitting at his kitchen table. We learn that dad, (Laurence Tierney) is a rough and tumble former bartender, and that O'Neal has always felt he didn't measure up to dad's expectations. Dad senses that not all is well with his son, and, in a series of flashbacks, we learn why. O'Neal was living in New York with Isabella Rossellini, hoping to become a writer. He became bored, and off they went for a weekend with a "Christian Couple looking for same for a sexy weekend." The man is a minister, and hung like a horse, and the woman is a flashy blonde who has managed to turn redneck trash into a sort of faux class.

The redneck woman, Debra Sandlund, is taken with O'Neal, and tells him she is going to dump the preacher, marry for money, then divorce the rich man and come looking for O'Neal. He and Rossellini fight on the way home, and have a wreck, where she loses her ability to have children. While she is in the hospital, he is arrested on cocaine charges and does three years in stir. When he is released, Sandlund turns up, rich, and married to an old school chum of O'Neal's, played by John Bedford Lloyd. Sandlund hires O'Neal as a chauffeur, then divorces her husband for the money, and marries O'Neal.

They have settled in Provincetown, and Sandlund throws the best parties on the east coast. At one of these, we meet the other major player, Wings Hauser, acting police chief, who knocks on the door in response to a noise complaint. Hauer is married to, of all people, Rossellini. Right after the party, Sandlund takes off.

Women's heads start turning up, and O'Neal and his father have a mystery to solve.

I suspect the lack of boxoffice was caused more by the amount of thought required to follow the story than anything else. While the film is very badly directed, it is entertaining, and has some very good performances. Provincetown is very photogenic, and the DP took full advantage of that fact.

This is a C-, but one you might want to take a look at.

Scoop's (Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)'s) words in yellow:

I admire Norman Mailer's work. I need to get that out of the way before I start taking a few shots at this movie. Mailer is the only man ever to win Pulitzers for both fictional and non-fictional books, and is one of our country's most esteemed men of letters, as well as one of the most creative and articulate thinkers of the post-war era.

I also have found him to be an agreeable person. Many people say that he's a jerk, but I once had a brief encounter with him, and he proved not to be a jerk at all.

I was living in Norway when his CIA novel, Harlot's Ghost, came out. Always anticipating a new Mailer book, and especially this one, I had some American friends mail me a copy the day it was available. Although it is an exceedingly long work, I read it in a single weekend, really liked it, and was shocked to see that The New York Times Book Review had given it a bad review. I think I've only written two letters to the editor in my life, and this event prompted one of them. I criticized the appropriate editor of the Times, not for the fact that the review was unfavorable, because we will never have universal accord on such matters, but for the fact that they assigned John Simon, the New York Times drama critic, to write the book review. It seemed to me at the time that the most respected paper in the world, at least according to some, had the obligation to assign a literary heavyweight to review a much-ballyhooed 1400 page tome by an acclaimed author of near-legendary status. Their assignment of Simon was baffling to me. He always seemed to me like the kind of drama critic that would have panned a Strindberg play because he didn't like the actresses' make-up and the lighting effects. Not only was John Simon a poor choice because of his lack of credentials, but he had a conflict of interest as well. Simon had written some acerbic comments about Mailer's actress daughter, and had recently exchanged some angry words with both daughter and father, as I recall (perhaps imperfectly).

I sure as hell ain't any man of letters, but if I had been in the undoubtedly fashionable shoes of the Times editor, I would have felt the need to compete on at least the same elevated level of prestige as their prime competitor, The Washington Post, whose Book World editor had assigned Anthony Burgess to review Mailer's book. That's Anthony Fucking Burgess to you, another man who had succeeded brilliantly in both fiction and non-fiction, as the author of A Clockwork Orange and other acclaimed novels, as well as scholarly analyses of the works of James Joyce. Now I ask you, if you were the Times editor, and the Post had contracted Burgess to review a new book, wouldn't you take that pretty damned seriously? I think you would have been going through your Rolodex to see if you had any contacts who might have a line on Rushdie, or Eco, or Pynchon, or some other comparable heavyweight. Pan the book if you care to, but at least establish the proper level for the dialogue to take place!

Personally, I thought it was a terrific book. Despite its length, it was a quick read as a Clancyesque work of espionage and intrigue, but it was also a serious meditation on the ebb and flow of American values, as reflected in, or perhaps sometimes subverted by, the country's top intelligence agency. 

When I sent that letter off to the Times, I also sent off a copy to Mailer's publisher. Then I forgot about it. I figured the Times would never publish the letter, since it was quite long, and since I was actually criticizing the person who made the decision about which letters to publish. Not to mention the fact that my writing style was probably at a level of suckitude unacceptable to high-falutin' literary muckity-mucks. But at least I felt better, having gotten the whining and sniveling out of my system.

A couple of weeks later I opened a hand-addressed envelope at my apartment in Norway. There was no return address. As I scanned immediately to the signature beneath the body, I saw that Mailer himself had written me a thoughtful hand-signed letter which clearly demonstrated that he had read my entire essay. I think my hands were trembling as I went through it. What a feeling to see a letter signed "Norman Mailer".

So he's basically a good guy, in my opinion.

Now that I have cleared that off the table, let the carnage begin.

On to the movie version of "Tough Guys Don't Dance"

Point One: I just can't understand the way these characters think.

In an early scene, we see Ryan O'Neal in a state of complete alcoholic despondence because his wife has left him.

Now here's the situation: O'Neal played an ex-con who was sweeping floors and bartending when he was wooed by a beautiful, bitchy, rich woman he had known and pleasured in the past. Eventually, she left him, her former chauffeur, walked out the door with a her new chauffeur (the guy from The Mod Squad!) and the promise of new sexual adventures.

O'Neal's reaction: despair. Each day he writes a number in shaving cream on his bathroom mirror, representing the number of days since she left. His male ego is shattered. Women are a prize which men compete for, and he had just become an official loser, probably having lost his wife to someone better, someone with a much bigger dick

My reaction would have been: joy. Just a few months earlier he had been a penniless ex-con. Now he would get half of his wife's wealth if they divorced, or possibly even all of it if she got herself killed. He was rid of a bitchy, castrating woman. He had a glamorous retreat in Provincetown, a lean athlete's body, and he looked a lot like Ryan O'Neal, who most women seem to find pretty easy on the eyes, so he wouldn't be lonely for long. The rest of his life was going to be a non-stop party, even though just a few months earlier he had been sweeping the floors in the local bar.

How do you relate to a movie when you simply can't make any sense of the way people behave? To me, everyone in this film seemed to be from another planet, one with life-forms similar to ours in appearance, but with different behavioral traits. I couldn't understand why any of the characters did the things they did, or said the things they said. I have never met anyone like a single character in this film. Anything relating to homosexual men is weak and cowardly. Women are sought out merely as trophies, or as evidence of one man's power over another. (Me take your woman. Food good. Fire bad.) Heterosexual men come together only to square off and prove which of them is the alpha male.

Point Two: the dialogue is unrealistic.

In general, Mailer's writing is very rhetorical. At the edge of the envelope, his words resonate with Churchillian eloquence, and soar majestically above ordinary prose. When he leaves the envelope, however, his words can seem artificial and turgid, edging perilously close to self-parody. In a novel, one may disguise lofty rhetoric in many ways, by subsuming it within an omniscient narrator's voice, for example. In a movie, narration is generally ineffective. Everything - character development and the exposition of ideas alike - has to be done with dialogue and pictures. I have never heard people speak the kinds of lines the characters speak in this film. People just don't talk like this.

  • “I see ghosts all around me… they say ‘dance for me’… I say ‘tough guys don’t dance’… they say ‘keep dancing’…”
  • "Oh, is daddy mad at brand new red hot mama?"
  • "Are you just gonna sit there and tickle my stick?"
  • "Hey, why don't you do me a favor? Drink my piss!"
  • "I like marijuana, especially home grown. It puts feathers on my ass."
  • "The blood coagulated with a ripple."
  • "Oh man, oh God! Oh man, oh God! Oh man, oh God! Oh man, oh God! Oh man, oh God!"


Point Three: the "mystery" doesn't work because of clumsy exposition.

At one point, Ryan O'Neal is warned by the new Chief of Police (Wings Hauser, playing a tall Dr Evil with a full head of hair, every bit the Doc, right down to the flamboyant hand gestures) to move his marijuana stash, because the state troopers are on to him and he is, after all, an ex-con. Ryan goes out to the mysterious spot in the woods where he's hidden his marijuana, and finds a human female head there.

Now let's recap the action, shall we? Hauser is new to town, yet he knows that O'Neal has that cache of dope deep in the woods. More than just knowing about it, Wings must have actually been there, because he obviously must have sent O'Neal out there to find the head, not to check on the dope. Yet Hauser could never have found that place on his own, not even with a map. It was nothing more than a rock in the forest. Lift up the rock, there is a hole underneath it. No way you could ever find it unless you knew which specific rock in the State of Massachusetts to look under. Even if you went there once with someone else, you could never find it again. O'Neal's wife is missing. There was another blond woman in town, in O'Neal's house and car and bed, the night that O'Neal's car was covered with blood.

What do you think happened? 

Obviously, Hauser stashed the head there. O'Neal's wife must have told Hauser about the stash, and actually took him out there personally at the very time when the head was placed there. That is the only possible way Hauser could have known the place existed, and the only way he could have found it to stash the head. Therefore, it is probably not the wife's head, since that must have been attached when she took Hauser there, and she wouldn't have been taking him out there so he could cut off her head, would she? Therefore, Hauser and the wife had to have some other reason to go out there in the first place. Therefore, it is the head of the other blond woman, and that woman must have been killed by either Hauser or O'Neal's wife. Even if Hauser didn't do the murder, he most likely did the decapitation because of the psysical strength required. It's more obvious than Colonel Mustard in the conservatory with a candlestick.

Well, that is the mystery, or at least the start of it, but it is all completely transparent from the outset. The script tries to offer a decoy by suggesting that O'Neal may have killed that woman in one of his "black-outs" (people surely black out a lot in moviedom), but that was never a possibility because of the other elements, like Hauser knowing about it. The exposition problem was exacerbated by the fact that the O'Neal character couldn't seem to figure out the obvious points I just made. You'd think that even a complete moron in a constant state of inebriation would think, "Hey, why did ol' Wings send me out there? He knew there was something wrong. Hey, how could he know that? Only if he put the head there? But how could he know where the location actually was? Only my wife could have told him?". At that point, O'Neal could not be sure which blond woman supplied the head, but the rest was obvious.

Instead of reasoning all that out, O'Neal goes home to bed. While he tosses and turns, a woman's voice repeats again and again on the sound track, "Whose head it it?" That was just downright goofy, not to mention the fact that the recurring dream-voice is a technique that went out of style about midway through 1927, about a week or two after the first talkies started to appear.

Mailer needed another way to tell this story. Perhaps the narrative structure could have been re-edited so that the transparent phony-baloney mystery would not have been important. The narrative now begins in the middle, proceeds to O'Neal's flashbacks (including flashbacks within flashbacks), then starts to progress forward until other characters start flashing back to fill in the details that O'Neal didn't know. I thought that narrative structure might have been unwieldy, and inimical to focusing on the correct elements.

Point Four: the "mystery" doesn't work because the musical score thwarts any development of tension.

I won't belabor this point, because it's not clear to me when the musical score was meant to underscore the tension and when it was meant to be dripping with irony. Perhaps all the things I am about to mention were done in the interest of genre parody or black comedy. That is a distinct possibility. But just for the record:

  • when O'Neal hears noises downstairs and creeps down with a crowbar in hand, the musical score plays some "Sylvester sneaking up on Tweety" music.
  • the syrupy musical theme in the opening credits seems to foreshadow a classic yarn in the style of old-fashioned Hollywood, ala The Betsy or The Prince of Tides. I guess there is some of that in this film, but it is more like a noir comedy, or perhaps a parody of noir.

Let me iterate that I may be off base. That music may have been irony which I assumed to be fecklessness. Hell, maybe that defense works for the entire movie, I don't know, but the whole thing seemed really odd to me, and I could never tell when Mailer was taking himself seriously. The same defense could certainly be offered for the dialogue. Same with the acting. Some of it was way over-the-top, and I'd be surprised if any scenery survived this filming without significant teeth marks, but I hesitate to criticize that for two reasons: (1) Mailer's dialogue is very difficult to deliver credibly. Pretend you're an actor and try to say the lines quoted above. You'll see what I mean. (2) They may have been overacting on purpose in order to deliver the satire, and/or to get the Gothic feeling that Mailer was looking for.

So maybe it's all a very clever joke that I just didn't get

Point Five: the last twenty seconds are just too weird for words.

And frankly, I don't know what the finale was supposed to mean. I know it was supposed to be creepy and ambiguous, but mainly it was just bizarre and incomprehensible.




Deborah Sandlund gives us a brief look at her breasts in an early sex scene, and a much longer look near the end.

A topless Katrina Marshall answers the door, thinking it is her boyfriend, and gives Wings Hauser and us a great look at her breasts and buns.

Does the movie have strengths?

Yes, some.

  • I loved the scene near the end where O'Neal and his dad (played by veteran character actor Lawrence Tierney, who was the best thing about the movie in general) took five bodies far from shore in a small boat and unloaded them one by one into the wine-dark and fog-shrouded sea, joking and bonding all the while. Neither of them killed any of the five people, by the way, but it was just easiest to clean everything up. Long story. Watch the movie to see the details. That particular scene was worthy of Tarantino in terms of juxtaposing everyday banter and violent grotesquerie in a spectacularly cinematic setting, and it featured the single relationship in the movie that seemed to be most genuine, that between the father and son.
  • Mailer came up with some excellent photographic composition of some very atmospheric locales. He was no expert on camera movement, but he might have learned to be a director if he had made that his exclusive desire.
  • There were several more murders, each of them was a separate mystery, and the murderer was not the same each time. It's a long and fairly interesting, if excessively complicated story, which I will not spoil.

DVD info from Amazon

  • widescreen anamorphic.

  • interview with Norman Mailer

You know, there was the core of a decent movie here. It had to decide whether it wanted to be genre or genre parody (I vote for pure parody), and it had to revise the narrative structure so that the non-mysterious mystery wasn't an element of plot focus, but given those elements, Mailer might have been able to make a good flick with a couple more million dollars and a couple more months.

Even as it is, Tough Guys is still fascinating. It is not in the "so bad it's good" category, but it can be called "so horrifying that it's fascinating",  Norman Mailer's staged train wreck. By that I mean that you will react to this film exactly the way rubberneckers react to violent derailment wreckage by the roadside. You will feel that you should turn your head away, but you won't be able to. I agree with Tuna's C-.

The Critics Vote

  • Roger Ebert 2.5/4

The People Vote ...

  • It was a colossal box office failure, only returning $885K against the $5M budget.


The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, this is a C-.

Return to the Movie House home page