Monday, February 18, 2013

Book Review: Lee Marvin Point Blank

Lee Marvin: Point Blank (2013) by Dwayne Epstein

"I don't care what's written about me as long as it's interesting."

Lee Marvin's wish is granted in Dwayne Epstein's new biography, the first serious attempt to trace the life and career of one of cinema's most iconic tough guys. The tall, silver-haired Marvin was always an instantly recognizable screen presence, with a voice that sounded as if its owner was gargling a mixture of vodka and gravel between takes. The actor straddled two generations of movie bad guys. At the start of his career he belonged to the sneering, scene-stealing hoodlums represented by Dan Duryea, Richard Widmark, and Jack Palance. He harassed Spencer Tracy in Bad Day at Black Rock, tormented James Stewart in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and most memorably of all, threw scalding coffee in Gloria Grahame's face in The Big Heat. But by the late 60s and 70s, Marvin had emerged as the elder statesman of cool, a grumbling drill sergeant that could whip even the most rubber-limbed of recruits into shape. Or, as in the film this book takes its title from, he could be the intrepid and remorseless killer, so stubbornly flat in his motivations that he becomes oddly magnetic. Marvin would live to see his own brand of onscreen violence turn him from monster to hero.

Offscreen, the Lee Marvin that Epstein recreates is a rowdy, charismatic individual, a man who combined the ability to spin a great yarn with a steely capacity for action. In short, he's pretty much the man you would want him to be from watching his films. Despite a rebellious childhood in which Marvin would get kicked out of countless schools, he found a strange kind of fulfillment when he joined the Marines during World War II. His wartime experience would be a constant companion through his acting career. For example, when Marvin tried a stint at the Actor's Studio with Strasberg, he got on the man's bad side by disagreeing with him about a scene. Strasberg claimed that Lee failed to act the great torment of a man suffering from a gangrenous leg. Marvin told him no, that was the whole point. A man in the last stage of gangrene feels no pain. With that, Marvin got himself kicked out of yet another school.

During his film career, Marvin would be drawn to movies that critiqued violence and war; he favored his work in the anti-war The Big Red One and the melancholy Western Monte Walsh far above the crowd-pleasing The Dirty Dozen.  In interviews, he disparaged the old idealized violence of classical Westerns, where "you end up with that little trickle of blood down your cheek and you're both pals and wasn't it a hell of a wonderful fight." When asked about his own style of cinematic cruelty, Marvin explained that "when I do a scene, I make it as rough as I can...make it ugly...I say make it so brutal that a man thinks twice before he does something like that." In one sense, Marvin succeeded in his goal, creating a niche for himself as an exciting screen heavy. But on the other hand, his success also hastened the arrival of newer and even more explicit thrills, for audiences that yearned to live vicariously. For his own part, Marvin had no patience for fans that got disappointed when his movies weren't violent enough. After one friend told him as much, Marvin barked, "Screw 'em, let 'em do their own killing!"

But hand in hand with Lee Marvin's thoughtful approach to his own career was his own potent taste for violence and destruction, a desire that expressed itself through brawling and dangerous pranks. When a friend noticed how often he sported fresh injuries, Marvin told her that he would deliberately go to bars and pick on little guys with lots of big friends, so that he could release his need to fight without getting anybody seriously hurt. Worse than the fighting was Marvin's alcholism. While the man was a loyal friend, generous to his family and courteous to costars, the alcohol exacerbated his worst traits, making him positively self-destructive with the passage of time. 

Epstein records these events with distant sympathy but doesn't let them distract us from the glories of Marvin's career. He spends time on each movie, although sadly not as much as my movie-loving heart would wish. And he follows his own interests on that score, giving more time to Marvin's performance in Monte Walsh (a movie that's definitely going on my must-see list after reading this book) than he does to The Dirty Dozen. For the most part, Epstein manages to balance the career with the character, giving weight to the personal stuff but never forgetting why we're interested in Marvin in the first place.

Epstein does a lot of things with this book that I wish biographers would do more often. He takes the space to think deeply about Lee Marvin's legacy and what his films mean to the current cinema. He muses about what today's action stars and directors owe to Marvin. Epstein also provides a list of all the films that Marvin came close to making during his Hollywood tenure (The Wild Bunch is the most frustrating near-miss), along with movies made after his death that the actor could have been perfect for, like The Untouchables or Unforgiven. Most importantly, he refuses to psychoanalyze Marvin. He doesn't try to explain away the man's alcoholism. He's doesn't blame everything on post-traumatic-stress disorder. He simply lets Marvin be who he is, without censure or excuse. It's an approach that Lee Marvin himself would no doubt have approved of.

Epstein's biography elides certain aspects of Marvin's life, for reasons that weren't always clear to me. The man's relationship with his children is kept to a few short comments on how Marvin, despite his affection, could never settle down to parenthood. Christopher Marvin, his only son, does re-enter the story to give a touching afterword to his father's life, but the daughters are given short shrift. Marvin's whirlwind second marriage to Pamela Feeley is almost as mysterious. At times, because this biography is on the slender side, it gives the impression of a book that was heavily dependent on certain sources, to the point that these sources often end up driving the narrative.

However, if Epstein had to rely heavily on one source, he chose well in giving lots of space to Betty Ebeling Marvin, Marvin's first wife. On the page, Betty comes off as a tart, sympathetic presence, fully capable of zinging her husband with a sharp one-liner. When Marvin asked if he had to pay for his daughter's wedding, Betty responded with, "I think that's your privilege, dear". Her marriage to Lee would slowly deteriorate over many years, worn down by alcoholism and adultery, but Betty gives her husband credit for his good points, commenting that her husband taught her to be strong and assertive. Those qualities would come back to bite him later; when he suggested a reconciliation after the divorce, Betty snapped back, "Why would I want to break back into prison?"

My own favorite Lee Marvin role remains Liberty Valance from the classic John Ford film. Both of my parents were avid fans of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and my dad would always lean forward in his seat before the entrance of Liberty Valance, grinning in anticipation. Marvin would have more nuanced and sympathetic roles later, but for my money, nobody's more enjoyable than Liberty. Not only does he have one of the best names of any cinematic villain, he's got a vivid, crackling personality, relishing his own nastiness with a glee that can't be matched. Just watching him stretch out his long leg to trip James Stewart is a pleasure. It's so outrageously larger-than-life and yet the savagery feels real. His scenes with Edmond O'Brien are hauntingly cruel, so much so that it's always a surprise to me that O'Brien turns up alive afterward, no matter how many times I see the movie. The assault is too harsh to be forgotten.

At his best, Marvin's appearance in a film was the equivalent of a knife cutting through the celluloid, a sudden flash of real brutality or hardened experience that could make other actors seem like so much make-believe. At his worst, he was never boring. And neither is this biography, an important step in crafting a full image of Lee Marvin as a man, an actor, and as a living presence in Hollywood history.

Final Six Words:

Straight-shooting account of dynamic actor

Note: This book was given to me as a review copy by Independent Publishers Group. It is published by Schaffner Press. It is available for purchase from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Powells, and directly from the Independent Publishers Group website .


  1. AE: Thanks for this review; I'm a big Lee Marvin fan and didn't know about this bio. Does it cover his TV work? B/c I think it's the work on shows like the first episode of Dragnet to Twilight Zone and Combat that really allowed him to stretch. I also think getting more gray in his air added gravitas, honestly.
    BTW, have you seen Shack Out on 101? It's insane. (And bad, but worth it, like seeing Robot Monster.) And while I tend to despise Richard Brooks' films (sorry, they're like nails on a blackboard (jungle) to me), I love Marvin in The Professionals, esp. his last line, and the bits about the bandit's hat.
    And if you'll allow me to self-promote, in my "Hitchcock's 'Jaws'" post at Lerner International, I speculate that Marvin accepts the role of Quint, since the movie will be made in Hollywood, and won't interfere with his fishing.
    Thanks for letting me comment,

  2. Ivan: By all means, feel free to self-promote. With links, too. The book does cover his TV work. including the Dragnet stint and some of the lesser-known work, like in Medic and Studio One. I'm afraid I haven't seen Shack Out on 101 but I'll put it on my list. I don't think I've seen enough of Richard Brooks to have an opinion one way or the other. But he did manage to snag my beloved Jean Simmons which in my book earns him some coolness points. Thanks for commenting!

  3. Sounds like a good read - thanks for the review! I'm going to check it out of our local library.

  4. Thanks for the link! You rule!

  5. Silverscreenings: Thanks for commenting. It's definitely worth checking out for Marvin fans.

    Ivan: My pleasure.

  6. While one can certainly imagine Marvin under the direction of Pekinpah, who exactly would he have replaced in The Wild Bunch. Holden is magnificent, ditto Borgnine, and their chemistry. Ben Johnson and Warren Oates are unreplacable. Surely Marvin wouldn't have played a smaller role in the Bunch. He might have worked in Robert Ryan's role, but Ryan brings a kind of defeat which I'm not sure Marvin ever exhibited, even in Monty Walsh. I can imagine Marvin in Robard's "Cable Hogue" role pretty well, or as Garrett in Billy, or as either McQueen's father or McQueen's own role in Junior Bonnor. He could not replace McQueen in the frequently (and mistakenly) dismissed The Getaway--there McQueen has no equal. He could not replace either Oates or Kristofferson in Alfredo Garcia. He could probably replace Coburn in Cross of Iron. I cannot imagine him replacing anyone in the Wild Bunch.

  7. Fiddlin Bill: Hi, don't think I've seen you around here before so welcome. Clearly you have more knowledge on this particular genre/wave of films than I do; I can't really debate your points. Of the films you mention, I've only seen The Wild Bunch and I agree with you that Holden and Borgnine can't be faulted on their performances. Still, Marvin could probably have had his own take on either role and I could also see him in the Ryan part. I don't think it has to take anything away from the actors that did play the roles to imagine how Marvin might have done it.

  8. Oh I certainly agree with you that Marvin could have done a fine job. In the Ryan role he might have brought something more even, although Ryan's role is rather small. I just really like the exhaustion and defeat that Ryan conveys. I'm not sure Marvin ever conveys exhaustion and defeat. He's wry, world-worn, but I don't sense--ever--sadness. Holden tho--that's the greatest role of his wonderful career. I guess that's why I made the comment. There's no doubt Marvin could have done his surely excellent interpretation of any of the main roles in Wild Bunch. I'm just asserting that his interpretation would not "top" Holden, who would really be the only role in the sense in which this idea that he could be in Bunch is made. As a character actor he could have done the Borgnine role easily, but again, possibly not with that element of sadness.

    There's a quality of elegy in the Wild Bunch. They all know for most of the movie that they are walking into their doom. The moment when they decide "this is it" and walk back into Mapache's camp is filled with a sense of "well, here it is, just like we figured." I didn't feel that in Monty Walsh, which is a good comparison in many ways. I'd almost say Palance has more of that sadness than Marvin. It would be interesting to think about him in Bunch.

    Anyways--I certainly agree with you that Marvin was capable of the roles in a broad sense. But I (personally) think Bunch is one of the top 5 or 10 films of all time, and a lot of that has to do with the particular actors. And of course the other part is Peckinpah. Who knows what Peckinpah might have gotten out of Marvin? I've read they encountered each other once, maybe on a TV script, and didn't get along.

  9. I would love to see an alternate universe version of The Wild Bunch starring Mr. Marvin--but it would be an absolutely different film as well, probably meaner, and less sentimental--with Marvin's Pike being like a aged Liberty Valance: someone who totally refuses to believe his time's running out. (But that's my speculation for today; tomorrow it will be something else...)

  10. Fiddlin Bill: Your comment on the sadness of Monte Walsh intrigued me since Epstein described it as sort of a bittersweet film. But you say that Marvin doesn't really convey that sadness, hmm. I do have to admit that I've yet to see Marvin in a role that I would describe as regretful. But I still haven't seen Monte Walsh or The Big Red One or a few of his other films, so I won't count him out just yet.

    Ivan: Even for movies I love, there's a part of me that always wants to see the alternate version. For example, I absolutely love Kim Novak in Vertigo and wouldn't trade her, but I have to admit curiosity about how Vera Miles would have done it. But going back to The Wild Bunch, I see your point about it becoming a different film. Personally, I like the "elegaic quality" in gunfighter movies since it compels some sympathy for these characters that I probably wouldn't have otherwise.

  11. Also, re the Wild Bunch, keep in mind that in a way Bunch is "really" a movie about Vietnam, which was blazing at the time it was made. Re Monty Walsh, I got bored with it about halfway through. It's a good portrait of aging working cowboys and that life. At the point I gave up on it I could find no dramatic tension to keep me engaged. Compare it's first 20 minutes to the first 20 minutes of Bunch! You've already by then seen the children burning the ants and scorpions, the shot up Bunch leaving town, probably even the dispatch by Pike of a blinded comrade who can't continue on, and Borgnine's irony about giving him a decent burial and a hymn sing.

    I have no doubt that Marvin could have starred in an alt. Bunch. Probably no one should ever attempt a remake of Bunch, however. They'd simulate the bridge scene for one thing.