Norman Mailer was one of the most prominent literary figures of post-war America, known for his celebrated masterpieces such as The Naked and the Dead as well as the Pulitzer Prize-winning Armies of the Night. A pioneer of the New Journalism era, Mailer’s work remains relevant to journalists as well as aspiring writers to this day.
While he was primarily known for his experiments in the domain of literature, Mailer had also ventured into filmmaking. Towards the end of the ’60s, he made multiple fascinating cinematic projects such as Wild 90 and Beyond the Law which are now recognised by film scholars for their avant-garde sensibilities and improvisational nature.
During that run, the film that received the most attention was his 1970 project Maidstone. The cast featured stars such as Rip Torn and Ultra Violet alongside Mailer who played the role of a famous filmmaker. Maidstone revolves around the chaos that follows when his friends, family and everyone around him team up to kill him.
It was the biggest film production that Mailer had worked on until that point but none of his cast and crew members knew what they were doing. The actors, especially, were left in the dark about his artistic intentions and they did even have a script to work on. Filmed over five days, the team captured 45 hours of footage which was eventually whittled down.
Rip Torn played the brother-in-law of Mailer’s character who was scheduled to assassinate him. However, the scene wasn’t explained to Torn properly and he grew frustrated about the lack of direction that Mailer provided to the project. That is why Torn took it upon himself to come up with an assassination scene and it was frighteningly convincing.
He picked up a hammer and attacked Mailer with it while the director retaliated by trying to bite Torn’s ear off his head. The fight was recorded on camera and has become the most popular part of the film’s legacy. While many have forgotten about what Mailer was trying to achieve with this project, they remember this infamous feud.
In an interview, Mailer reflected on the backlash that he received from many feminist activists: “The women’s movement picked it up as if it were manna from heaven. They had found their number-one sexist pig in America. Maidstone came out in 1971. It couldn’t have had better timing. It went absolutely into the cavern’s mouth of the Women’s Liberation Movement.”
The critical reception of the film was also very negative, with some critics only paying attention to it because of all the controversy. Mailer later revealed that he had made peace with Torn: “Oh boy! Especially when your kids are there. They were kind of marked by it. It’s something they go back to over and over. Rip and I made up a long time ago.”
This fight gained so much notoriety that it ended up being used as evidence in a legal case where Dennis Hopper claimed Rip Torn attacked him with a knife when he heard that Jack Nicholson had replaced him in Easy Rider. Torn eventually won the case because he argued that “he could not have possibly killed Hopper as he was, at the time, on the set of Maidstone trying to kill Norman Mailer.”
Watch the footage of Rip Torn attacking Norman Mailer below.