How did you become a fan of Lee Marvin?
When I was a kid, if they were showing a film on TV and it was really long, they used to show them in two parts. Every time they showed THE DIRTY DOZEN (1967), I would absolutely stay up late and watch it. I watched it so many times that I would remember where Part One would end and Part Two would start! I was fascinated by the way Marvin played his character and as I saw him more and more in other films, I become even more of a fan. I grew up a huge movie fan, and before the Internet and Wikipedia, I was always the guy who got called in the middle of the night to settle a bar bet or answer a question about a movie someone was watching. I had specific movie tastes and opinions. I had several favourite actors - people like Burt Lancaster, James Cagney and Steve McQueen. But of that whole post-WW2 generation of actors, Marvin was at the top of the list.
What was it about Marvin that attracted you the most?
There are some actors who come off phony, but I knew instinctively that Marvin wasn't like that. He shared a quality that McQueen had: you were never quite sure what they were going to do next in a scene. It kept you on edge and surprised you from moment to moment. Marvin always played fascinating characters who had led interesting lives.
What does Marvin represent to your generation?
Marvin had experienced the nightmares of WW2 firsthand, and had lived through the Depression, both of which I had not experienced myself. His experiences transferred to the screen. I spent about twenty years researching his life for the book, and I discovered that like many actors of his generation, in real life he was more like the characters he played than any of the actors from the studio system days, such as Clark Gable or Tyrone Power of the previous generation.
In my book I put forward the thesis that there was always a theme of violence running in either the characters he played or in the films themselves. I was interested where this quality came from. The way I see it, Marlon Brando was the dividing line in popular culture between the old and new style film acting. In a similar way, Marvin was also a pioneer in the sense that he was the first modern American action hero. American action films prior to Marvin were dominated by John Wayne, and although the films Marvin was making were much more graphic, believable and realistic, and in the style of similar European and Asian films, his sensibilities were still very American. In interviews, Marvin was very straightforward about wanting to portray violence as realistically as possible. That commitment was real, and you could see it in every film he made.
What made you decide to write a biography of Marvin?
I had actually thought of writing a book on Steve McQueen, but when you're a writer you have to deal with market concerns as well as your own interests, and quite a few books had already been done on McQueen. Whilst talking to an author friend of mine we realised there hadn't been a good book about Marvin.
What do you think distinguishes your book from the other Marvin books?
During the two decades it took to finish the book and get it published, I was able to talk with over a hundred people connected to Marvin, many of them fascinating. My book has interviews with people who have never spoken before. Chief amongst them was Marvin's older brother Robert, who had never been interviewed before. It took a while to gain his confidence but he proved to be an amazing source and we really grew to like each other. Robert passed away in 1999. He really opened up about Marvin's experiences in WW2, and gave me access to all the letters Marvin wrote home during the War, which formed a weekly update of his experiences in wartime. I decided to let Marvin write that particular chapter of the book himself. I linked it together with a narrative but it's all his own words. He was often in a battle area when he wrote the letters and was also limited in what he was allowed to write about. Marvin also suffered from dyslexia, poor spelling and ADD, so it was like deciphering hieroglyphics for me! I found myself getting very emotionally affected by what he wrote, and it was all written in the moment as he was feeling it.
I also spoke to Meyer Mishkin, who was Marvin's agent from the day he arrived in Hollywood in 1950 to the day he died in 1987. Meyer has also passed away, but he also gave me great access. Much has been written about the famous palimony suit that Marvin was involved in, but the media have always told the story from Michele Triola, or her lawyer, Marvin Michelson's point of view. Nobody ever interviewed David Kagon, Marvin's lawyer! His firm, Goldman and Kagon, had represented Marvin since the '60s. They weren't just hired to cover Marvin's butt. They had known all the parties for quite some time.
One of the great interviews I got for the book was from Marvin's first wife, Betty. The cliche in Hollywood is that nobody knows you better than your first wife. Betty is in her eighties now and still going strong. She's life-loving, spunky and doesn't let tough times get her down. Betty very much believed in the project and put me in touch with her son with Marvin, Christopher, who has never gone on the record before. Sadly, Christopher succumbed to cancer in October 2013.
What are some examples of things you learned about Marvin?
After talking with Betty, Christopher and others, I discovered that Marvin suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I am no expert but I would venture if there were ten symptoms he would have had eight of them.
He was a very naturally intelligent man. Marvin wasn't necessarily well-read because he didn't finish high school, but he had amazing instincts. He was a great BS detector and could tell a phony a mile away. It was a minor revelation to me that Marvin was a big fan of the blues and jazz. I even listened to a lot of blues whilst writing the book in order to think like him or something!
Those that knew him would tell you that yes, he was a tough Marine but he also had a sensitive, caring side. I didn't know he was such a close friend of the actor Keenan Wynn before I interviewed his two sons Ned and Tracy Keenan (the screenwriter of THE LONGEST YARD, 1974). Both of them had lots to say about their relationship which they had witnessed from their childhoods up until Keenan's death in 1986.
When it came to Marvin's drinking, were you scared of opening up a can of worms?
I want to tell you the truth: it took a while for some people to go on record and admit that Marvin was an alcoholic. Betty was the first to go on record. Marvin went through the rigours of Alcoholics Anonymous and he saw a psychiatrist but he never stopped drinking until the day he died. There were many anecdotes about his drinking that were fun to read at first because he was a bawdy drinker, but after a while the stories started to leave a bad taste in my mouth and I wanted to get away from them. They became depressing. Witnessing drunken escapades or hearing about them can be fun but they're not fun to the people who have to live with that person. Marvin had a built-in filter when it came to drinking and wouldn't go past a certain point. His parents were puritanical, and his press agent told me that oftentimes when he misbehaved with his drinking he would mumble 'Courtenay wouldn't like that.' Courtenay was his mother.
That said, he and his friends almost got arrested in Vegas when he was making THE PROFESSIONALS (1966) because it got out of control. Sometimes it was purely circumstantial that he didn't end up in jail.
Which Marvin films or performances are some of your personal favourites?
THE DIRTY DOZEN is my favourite, and I still find Marvin wonderful in that. MONTE WALSH (1970) is an underrated classic that is in dire need of rediscovery. If you want to see what Marvin would have been like in THE WILD BUNCH (1969), you should see THE PROFESSIONALS, which like the Peckinpah film is a thinking man's action film. POINT BLANK (1967), THE ICEMAN COMETH (1973), EMPEROR OF THE NORTH (1973) and THE BIG RED ONE (1980) are all great. There are also the films he made when he was starting out: films such as THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE (1962), SEVEN MEN FROM NOW (1956) and SHACK OUT ON 101 (1955), which is a strange little movie with Keenan Wynn and Terry Moore. THE BIG HEAT (1953) is a classic and has a truly violent scene involving Marvin that still packs a punch. After that scene, Vincent Canby of The New York Times dubbed him 'The Merchant of Menace'!
What's your favourite overlooked Marvin film or performance?
There's a forgotten noir called VIOLENT SATURDAY (1955). It's filmed in lush colour, but even the director Richard Fleischer described it as a noir when I interviewed him. The film is a strange hybrid of PEYTON PLACE (1957) and THE ASPHALT JUNGLE (1950). Marvin plays one of three bankrobbers who go into a small town to do a job and they become embroiled in a series of dramas that are going on with the local people. His character is very strange and constantly using his Benzedrine inhaler. There's a great, really weird scene where he explains how he got addicted to the drug. Another equally memorable scene earlier in the film starts off with Marvin walking along the street and being bumped into by a little kid, who knocks his inhaler into the street. When the kid goes to pick it up, Marvin takes his foot and mashes it into the kid's hand. He's smiling while he's doing it, which is hysterical.
Do you think there are any modern actors to compare with Marvin?
The short answer is no, but there are some actors who remind me of him. Tommy Lee Jones is the actor who reminds me the most of Marvin. He looks like him a little bit and has that dangerous stillness. When you watch him in NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007). I think it's impossible not to think about Marvin. I don't believe the likes of Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise, who are good actors, bring a level history or a sense of danger to their parts like Marvin did. It reminds me of why Marvin and Marlon Brando didn't eventually make DELIVERANCE (1972). Marvin loved the book and had actually introduced it to John Boorman. But as he told a reporter, actors like Brando and himself bring something to a part in the minds of the audiences before they open their mouths and that can help or hinder the film. They were also too old.
How has writing the book changed your life?
Well, I became a better writer working on it, and through watching Marvin's films again and again, I came to know what great acting actually is vs what I thought it was before. I interviewed Jeff Bridges for the book, who appeared with Marvin in THE ICEMAN COMETH. Jeff was a young actor at the time and was still on the fence about whether he wanted to be an actor or not. He was still considering being a professional surfer or musician. Jeff told me he was still learning and learned a lot on the movie from not only Marvin but also the likes of Robert Ryan, Fredric March and all the other wonderful character actors who were in the film. One of the unwritten rules in film acting is that when the camera is in close, you go small. Jeff told me Marvin did it really big in a close-up. He had never seen that done before and asked him why he had done it that way. Marvin told him "Kid, that's my style. When everybody does it the way they do it, I do it the way I think it should be done. I know how to go big when the camera is tight, but not everybody does." And it's true. Usually when you see Marvin in a close-up, you don't see that he is taking it so broad, and it's incredibly emotionally effective.
Marvin could be big and broad and in your face but not overwhelmingly so, but he could also be subtle and still, like he was in POINT BLANK, where his character was frightening in his stillness. You never knew when he was going to spring like a tiger. Marvin could run the spectrum of human emotions, and not only is it it is fascinating, it taught me what great acting is. It's about bringing the audience into what you're doing and getting them lost in the story. Even when his movies were occasionally cringe-inducing, Marvin was never ever boring.
In what ways do you feel Marvin didn't fulfill his potential?
He didn't fulfill his potential in that he wasn't given the chance to be as versatile as he showed he could be in his early career, particularly on TV. Marvin played characters that he would never play on film. For example, I saw a TV episode from the '50s where he played a Lenny Bruce-style stand-up comedian. The show itself was kind of stupid but Marvin was incredible. At the beginning and ending of the episode he did a full-on stand-up routine and he was really funny, with razor sharp timing. Marvin acted in quite a few classic movies, but had he made THE WILD BUNCH we would have had a true American classic with Marvin in the lead role. Ironically it was Marvin who had introduced the property to Sam Peckinpah. He never publicly said so, but I think his biggest professional regret was not doing the film. Marvin really wanted to do the film but circumstances prevented him from doing so. He always said he never regretted not doing the film and that he didn't like the film that much, but I think that was a case of sour grapes. As much as I love William Holden in the role of Pike, I cannot watch the film without wondering what Marvin would have done in the role. It's kind of sad.
Had he lived longer, how do you think Marvin's career would have played out?
I think had he lived he would have had no problem playing, for example, Clint Eastwood's character in MILLION DOLLAR BABY (2004) or better yet, UNFORGIVEN (1992). I can also see him playing Daniel Day Lewis's character in GANGS OF NEW YORK (2002). As Marvin got older he became a much more interesting screen persona because he brought a lot of baggage with him and he took chances.
I'm pretty sure he was one of the first actors of his generation to go on record and say that he wouldn't have a problem playing a homosexual character and that he also didn't have a problem with homosexuality at all. That might not seem like much of a statement now but you have to keep in mind that he was a WW2 veteran. Think for a moment if John Wayne had said something like that. There's a scene in the restored version of THE BIG RED ONE (1980). His character has been wounded and he is behind enemy lines in a German hospital. A male orderly kisses him on the mouth and Marvin grabs him and says "I don't mind you being horny but you've got bad breath", and then throws him downstairs. I don't think an actor like Robert Mitchum would have allowed a man to kiss him onscreen. That's the thing about Lee Marvin. He was always willing and able to surprise his audience.
I spoke to Dwayne by telephone on 23 August 2013, and would like to thank him for his time.
Lee Marvin Point Blank is available from Schaffner Press. Check out the website for the book.
Paul Rowlands is a Japan-based writer. After completing a BA Humanities course (majoring in English and Science) at the University of Chester, he moved to Japan in 1999. He writes for the James Bond magazine, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, has had articles published on Press Play and has had an almost lifelong obsession with cinema, something the advent of DVD only increased. Paul is also a writer of so far unpublished short stories , screenplays and novels.
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