Stone-faced and brutal, Lee Marvin defined the role of cinematic "tough guy."
Dwayne Epstein, author of the new biography Lee Marvin: Point Blank, describes the moment he realized Marvin's role as film's first "action star" as the "quintessential whack on the back of the head. Some people call it a lightbulb over the head. They used to call it the light bulb going off. For me, it was a whack in the back of the head."
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His filmography couldn't be more rough-and-tumble: There's a pioneering biker flick with Marlon Brando, The Wild One; the ferocious Don Siegel-directed adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's stort story The Killers (with John Cassavetes, Angie Dickenson, and Ronald freaking Reagan as the bad guy); war classic The Dirty Dozen, and the existential Point Blank, in which John Boorman directs Marvin as "Walker," torn from the pages of a Donald E. Westlake's The Hunter, who exacts revenge on his enemies in the name of a paltry $93,000 he's owed.
"It started with the fact that Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese, two premier filmmakers in different generations . . . In both of their debut films as directors, they reference Marvin," Epstein says, seated in the Changing Hands Bookstore offices, moments before speaking to a small crowd about the legendary actor.
"I knew about Tarantino doing it in Reservoir Dogs, that's a given," he says. "But when I saw Scorsese's first film, Who's That Knocking at My Door . . . Harvey Keitel is talking to his girlfriend on the roof of the apartment they live in, and he has a long dialogue -- which I put in the book -- all about how much he loves Lee Marvin and why. That's when it dawned on me. What do Scorsese and Tarantino have in common? They're very different filmmakers, but at the same time, the thing they have in common is that they deal with things of a violent nature. Man's aggression. I thought, 'If these guys are the both referenced Marvin in their debuts, there's something there.'"
The biography charts the specifics of that "something there," exploring Marvin's youthful roots, his time in WWII, his romantic entanglements, and his work. He offers new insights into the actor's life -- suggesting that he might have had ADD -- and details his unique role: That of a hard-edged badass who also supported gay rights, championed the presidency of John F. Kennedy, and approached playing aggressive characters with a sensitivity and lonesomeness that endeared him to the post-punk vanguard (see: the Sons of Lee Marvin, a secret society of fans that includes Jim Jarmusch, Tom Waits, John Lurie, Thurston Moore, and more).
The book follows Marvin to Tucson, the city he moved to in 1975, "drying out like a lizard in the sun," Epstein laughs, before dying of a heart attack in 1987. With a bit of thrilling imaginary history, Epstein suggests film characters Marvin could have played had his health improved, from Curly in City Slickers to Detective John Hartigan in Sin City. Built on a framework of interviews, oral history-style accounts, and years of amassed research, Point Blank is a great read.
"Doing the research, especially in terms of consistency, nobody was ever as realistic blunt, and most importantly, graphic, about violence in film as Lee Marvin," Epstein says. "There had been brutality in films before [from actors like] James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart. People forget that Clark Gable became a star because he slapped Norma Shearer in a movie and women swooned. The key for me was consistency; those actors did a lot of different kind of movies, but not only those kinds of movies."
Epstein says that Marvin's dedication to a singular style of films puts him in a different league than the aforementioned actors. Even his comedies and musicals -- Paint Your Wagon, Cat Ballou -- find him embodying a certain sort of violent character.
"With Lee Marvin's experiences in the war, he had it in his mind and in his life that what he experienced, that violence is never something that's been honestly depicted on film," Epstein says. "Even though he's not a producer, director, or writer, as an actor . . . he's going to give the most honest portrayal of violence ever depicted on film."
That violence would come to define Marvin's body of work, and it would influence the entire action genre. In January 2013, Jason Statham starred as "Parker" in a film of the same name, featuring another adaptation of the Westlake character Marvin portrayed with chilling clarity in Point Blank. Epstein is quick to distinguish Marvin from action heroes in his wake.
"This might be oversimplifying it, but in the most superficial way, the biggest difference is that Jason Statham is not an actor. I'm sorry if this offends any of his fans, but he's a guy that became famous prior to films. He was a model. Prior to that he was a mixed martial arts expert, I think. There are other examples: Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was a body builder; Chuck Norris who was a martial arts expert; Jean-Claude Van Damme was a martial arts expert. These guys all made their name and fame elsewhere and got into film. Lee Marvin and actors of Marvin's generation were actors, you know? To me, on a superficial level, that matters. I can see the difference. I can see the commitment to the performance."
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As for Marvin's own film with Norris, 1986's The Delta Force?
"He had moved the entire action film genre into the 20th century," Epstein says. "But he ended up making a live-action cartoon, which is what we see now."
For all its silliness, even that film demonstrates Marvin's unique and singular perspective, Epstein says: "In his mind -- and I don't necessarily agree with this logic -- in his mind, [an honest portrayal of violence] would be the best deterrent to violence. Show it as ugly; show it for being what it really is."