Tuesday, March 12

Lee Marvin: Point Blank

I just finished a new book by that name.  It was well-written by Dwayne Epstein through Shaffner Press.  It is his first movie star biography.  It appears well-researched, very informative and an honest, often painful look into the life of a good actor and a troubled man.

I have always liked Lee Marvin but admit that I never thought much about him (certainly not as much as some others I have written about here) if I discount his messy publicity of the 1970s palimony suit with Michele Triola.  One of his films is in my 50 Favorite Films list and several others I find quite remarkable.  When watching him on the screen, I always wondered if he was really mean in real life and if he was a boozer.  I wonder no more.

He was born into a family that was dysfunctional on a number of different levels.  Marvin never much cared for his father, who apparently had intimacy issues.  He had little to say.  Sons need lots of attaboys from their dads and that need left unfulfilled can result in behavior issues that linger throughout a lifetime.  Marvin really hated his mother who was more into fashion and her image than she was motherhood.  From this relationship, Marvin had a lifetime of  women issues.  He didn't seem to respect them and they appeared to mean little to him when vertically considered.

These are, of course, some of the details I had no knowledge of until I read this insightful bio but I can't say that I am surprised to learn them.  My own father quite fits the description thus far outlined.  I didn't care much for my old man and maybe this is why I never much took to seeking more info on Marvin... until now.

He had a number of ways for handling his woes as a child and they began with running away, another trait he embraced his whole life.  He also learned early to swear, call names, be loud, intimidating, disrespectful, rebellious and scary.  As a teen he also took to drinking.  He also had undiagnosed dyslexia and ADD.

After living in a number of states and attending a variety of schools, he left for a stint in the Marines right after Pearl Harbor.  Epstein devotes a couple of early chapters to Marvin's military experience and suffice it to say that in the spirit of that old adage the service either makes you or breaks you, it broke Lee Marvin.  He spent much time as a sniper and killed many of the enemy.  He also saw a number of his pals killed.  It was all hard for him to deal with and many of his behavioral issues escalated.  The drinking now took hold with a vengeance and while he had bouts of sobriety in his life, he was a life-long drinker... and by most accounts, a very mean one.  He was often smashed on film sets.  One friend called him a snot-flying drunk.

He had been doing some plumbing work at a playhouse in Woodstock, NY, after he left the service, when he heard that they were looking for a tall loudmouth for a play that was being produced.  He was already his full height of 6'3" and no one questioned that mouth.  Frankly, while it was a loud voice, it was also a mighty impressive one... one of those gorgeous movie voices. 

From the playhouse experience, he realized that acting was his calling.  He had never been so passionate about a job, career, profession.  One thing that definitely struck a chord for the young Marvin was the same thing that occurs to many actors... they could escape their pasts and ignore their present by hiding inside a character they're playing.  He said that acting was a search for communication.  He headed for The Great White Way where he did some off-Broadway and even landed a role in a Broadway play. 

He soon found himself in Hollywood with a good agent and I am certainly one to tell you that Lee Marvin worked a very great deal.  But he was quite unlike, say, Gregory Peck or Burt Lancaster or Charlton Heston who became stars with their very first films.  Marvin busted his ass in a gazillion films, some big, some small, but his parts were usually small (some even uncredited) and in my opinion quite memorable.

He had done a number of television shows and 11 films when director Fritz Lang tapped him to play a mean-ass thug who menaces Glenn Ford and famously throws a pot of scalding coffee in Gloria Grahame's face in the film noir The Big Heat.  What a memorable scene.  Now he garnered the attention he was seeking.  The same year (1953) he played Marlon Brando's motorycling adversary in The Wild One.

Marvin has often been compared to Humphrey Bogart... similar personality types, same general style of acting.  He would get one chance to work with Bogart in 1954 in The Caine Mutiny, although another bit part for Marvin.  In 1955 he made three (out of five) films worth noting.  They all helped elevate him as a commodity.  First up was Bad Day at Black Rock, a wonderfully moody drama about a man (Spencer Tracy) who comes to a smalltown and is harassed by three of its citizens, Marvin and two men who would be his frequent costar, Robert Ryan and Ernest Borgnine.  (Charles Bronson, not in Bad Day, would also make a number of films with Marvin.  After Marvin got big, he would remind those men how he had gotten bigger than they were.)

He was a bank robber in the all-star cast of Violent Saturday (a gem of a little film noir that never quite found its footing) and Pete Kelly's Blues, for a change as a good guy, working in Jack Webb's band during Prohibition with Janet Leigh and Peggy Lee around for distraction.

Marvin's name was bigger and his output still considerable but the big roles he was seeking continued to elude him.  The drinking escalated as did his five-pack-a-day cigarette habit (he never quit, still puffing during his final hospital stay).  Marriage (lasting 14 years) and ultimately four children (he would have been the first to admit he was never a very good father) did little to calm him down.

Finally things changed for him with the dawning of the 60s..  For adults around in the 1960s, it was a very heady time.  In my life, having successfully gotten through a few decades now, I can safely say I have never known one like the sixties.  In films, like in life, things became more sexual, more violent, language more in-your-face, realism was the order of the day.  Finally the decade made for Lee Marvin.  He was the man who once said he needed violence in his life.

Mean as hell as Liberty Valance

Marvin had done some westerns and had liked the genre because of its violent nature.  While he had already worked for a number of top directors (you'll be reading about most of them in upcoming posts, doncha know), he had not worked for that wily old son of a bitch, John Ford.  In 1962's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Marvin would get his opportunity.  As Liberty (technically another small part), he was electrifying, about as mean and scary and unpredictable as a movie bad guy has ever been.  I may be a great
fan of John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart and female lead Vera Miles, but I gotta tell you, it may not have been on my 50 Favorite Films list if it weren't for Lee Marvin. 

Here's a great place to add that not only was that throaty, mellifluous voice still in evidence, but the still fairly young guy now had gone completely gray.  The appeal was growing.

It 1964 he played the lead thug in The Killers, originally shot as a TV movie but deemed too violent, resulting in it being released to theaters instead.  It is more famous today as the final film for Ronald Reagan (whom Marvin thought was a lousy actor).  Marvin was again gripping as the bad guy.  Marvin's most frequent female costar, Angie Dickinson, was along for the mayhem.

Then came the Hollywood gold and four films in a row that forever more cemented Lee Marvin as a bfd in those Hollywood environs.  In Ship of Fools he costarred with Vivien Leigh, an actress he much admired and was eager to work with, as two star-crossed passengers on a ship going from Mexico to Germany.  It was directed by Stanley Kramer, a man who gave Marvin several jobs.

Cat Ballou is one silly western although I marveled at Marvin in a comedic dual role as a drunken (now there's a stretch) gunslinger and his evil twin brother.  Somehow he snatched the Oscar away from the likes of Richard Burton and Laurence Olivier.  He was a force to be reckoned with, although still an unhappy man who often behaved badly.

"They" get the Oscar.

In his Oscar acceptance speech, Marvin famously and funnily said he needed to thank a horse somewhere out in the Valley.  Epstein writes a very funny and detailed accounting of how they got that horse to cross his legs, with a passenger, no less.

The Professionals (1966) should be on every western lover's list of great shoot-em-ups.  Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan and Liberty Valance costar Woody Strode joined Marvin to play the title characters out to recapture voluptuous Claudia Cardinale from the bed of mean ol' Jack Palance.  When I need a quick cowboy fix on a rainy day such as this one, I often grab The Professionals.

Finally in 1967 came The Dirty Dozen, arguably Marvin's most famous film.  He trained and headed a group of violent (oh...?) misfits for a suicide mission during WWII.  His three frequent costars, Borgnine, Bronson and Ryan joined John Cassavetes, Donald Sutherland, Ralph Meeker, Clint Walker and others for a marvelous war movie... and I don't often speak like that.  This same year Marvin was acclaimed as Hollywood's number one male box office star.  Ok, NOW he had arrived.

The Dirty Dozen, The Professionals and The Big Heat are three of my five favorite Marvin movies and the next two are the remaining ones.  Marvin did something quite unusual when he signed up for Paint Your Wagon.  Why?  It was a musical.  He sang.  Marvin sings!  Unfortunately it was a bad time for everyone.  Marvin had divorced and was in the throes of his wacky relationship with Triola.  The director Josh Logan was losing his marbles and the entire production was troubled.  But naysaying be damned, I loved it.  A musical western... omg, don't force me to tell you what that is all about for me.  Gorgeous Jean Seberg and a singing Clint Eastwood made this rousing menage-a-trois a rollicking good time.

Monte Walsh is arguably the best character, the most finely nuanced, the most heartfelt that Marvin ever played.  It is a most thoughtful western about two cowpokes (Jack Palance is the other one) reluctantly coming to terms with the end of the Old West as they've known it.  You may not realize it but Marvin rarely had a love interest in his films.  Here was an exception with the luminous presence of Jeanne Moreau.  It's long been said they knew each other, um, very well... it shows up there on that screen.  Unfortunately the dumbass suits had the editors hack away at the film and the wounds show as well.  The film was aided by a charming Mama Cass song, The Good Times are Coming.   Marvin said Monte Walsh was his favorite film.

With Jeanne Moreau in Monte Walsh

He still had 14 more films left to make but I think only the two he made in 1973 are worth discussing here.  One is Emperor of the North, a burning, uncompromising look at hobos riding the rails back in the Depression.  Old buddy Borgnine wasn't much of a buddy here.  He was evil as the conductor and Marvin had the more sympathetic part.  Then came The Iceman Cometh costarring Ryan, Fredric March and a young Jeff Bridges.  It was essentially a filmed play (a Eugene O'Neill classic) where Marvin's character plays mind games with patrons of a skid row bar over their dreams.  While I quite enjoyed both of these films, neither was particularly successful.

After the long mess involving Triola, Marvin quickly and surprisingly married again... to a woman he had actually known since he was a young man.  I suspect it was a bit of a marriage of convenience... he needed someone around.  No one confused it with Romeo and Juliet.  He would leave Hollywood for Tucson.  His last two films were a TV sequel to The Dirty Dozen and second billing to Chuck Norris in some ass-licking, stupid movie.  What a shame.

He would die in Tucson, technically of heart failure, but suffering with all sorts of maladies.  He was a mere 63 years old but looked much older due to years of marathon smoking, boozing and general debauchery.  I suspect he was never a happy person, not ever.  He often laughed, had close friends, loved listening to music.  He certainly had brief bouts of happiness but this man never got over his mama or the war.

He used that unhappiness, the anger at the lack of love, the fear and disillusionment and violence of war in his acting.  He was clearly an instinctual actor, an instinctual animal.  He had great bits of business that he employed in his characters.  Being still he could steal scenes easily from other actors.  He paid great attention to detail.  Watch any one of his films... it all clearly shows.

So hey, thanks Dwayne Epstein.  You filled in the missing pieces for me and provided so much more.  It was a stimulating read.  I sensed that with all his faults, you liked your subject and I like that.

I guess it's a special book for me, too, in one regard.  I expect it will be the last actual book I might read.  After much deliberation, I have bought a Kindle and I have started my first ebook (on one-time Marvin costar Spencer Tracy).

Oh yes, a shoutout to publisher Schaffner Press.  In your index, you have listed all the titles of Marvin's movies that start with "the" under "T."  You don't know that, say, The Dirty Dozen goes under "D?"  English isn't your first language?

My First Favorite Irishman


  1. Gasp! Your last REAL book? Nooo, it can't be. There might be days when you'll long for turning actual pages. I'll be curious to hear how the Kindle goes. I have an iPad for work and have yet to read any books on it, but I know I should give it a try. I'll be traveling for work (one international trip!) so perhaps I'll finally join the e-book world. xoxoxo

  2. I have to echo Lori's comment about you and a Kindle. The world is over as we know it.