"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 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 .