CANNON MONTH: Tough Guys Don’t Dance (1987)

I honestly have no idea how to classify this movie and you know what, let’s not put it in an easy bucket. Let’s just enjoy it for what it is.

Whatever it is.

Roger Ebert tried. He said that it had “an impressive content of sex and violence, but beneath that is a strange nostalgia that seems to have nothing to do with anything else. The nostalgia is for Provincetown, seen in a cold winter season with the weathered gray houses against a pink and purple sky, the gulls’ cries lonely in the twilight. This place is so deeply seen that the people in the movie sometimes seem like ghosts, occupying it for a time.”

Written and directed by Norman Mailer based on his novel of the same name, this feels like a David Lynch movie made by people who would make fun of David Lynch if he drank in the same bar as them, the kind of, well, tough guys who only order whiskey and whatever local beer is on tap.

As for the title, it comes up early and out of the mouth of Dougy Madden, played by real life tough guy Lawrence Tierney. It’s something boxer Roger Donahue told the writer: Frank Costello, the Murder, Inc. boss and his girlfriend met three champion boxers in the Stork Club. Costello demands that each, in turn, dance with his woman, and each nervously complies. The last, Willie Pep, who had a 229–11–1 record with 65 knockouts, who was described as “trying to fight a grass fire,” simply replied, “Tough guys don’t dance.”

Determining the moral of that story is like trying to divine what this movie is all about.

On the surface, it’s a noir about Tim Madden (Ryan O’Neal), former bartender, current ex-con and struggling writer, whose wife Patty Lareine (Debra Sandlund) has left him, who wakes up to a new tattoo that says Madeline, blood all over his car, a severed head where he keeps his marijuana and the new Provincetown police chief Luther Regency (Wings Hauser) showing up living with his former girlfriend named, you may have guessed it, Madeleine (Isabella Rossellini).

How did he get here? How did he lose the love of his life? Why did he answer that ad in Screw and swing with Madeleine and preacher Big Stoop (Penn Jillette) and his wife, who eventually became his wife? Why did he do that to Madeleine? Why did their argument cause a crash that cost him the child that he and Madeleine wanted? And now why would life take the only person he can depend on, his father Dougy, the guy who may be disappointed in him but who always tells it straight?

Tim’s life is a mess. After Patty left Big Stoop, she married his prep school friend Wardley Meeks III (John Bedford Lloyd), then got rich off her next divorced before marrying Tim and then leaving him and then disappearing. So maybe Tim killed her. And why is Madeline writing him to let him know that Regency was having an affair with Patty? It’s like a soap opera we haven’t watched for decades but need to get caught up on, except with great actors who maybe aren’t great actors in this, except they totally are and every frame is perect imperfection.

And just what does porn star Jessica Pond and her cucked husband Lonnie Pangborn (R. Patrick Sullivan) have to do with all this? Why are there now two heads in the marijuana hiding place? Why does Tim say, “Oh man! Oh God, oh man! Oh God, oh man! Oh God, oh man! Oh God, oh man, oh God!” which is ony topped by “Your knife is in my dog.” for dramatic reading? And what are we to make of the tales of the fires on the shore of Provincetown, the blend of The Fog and Messiah of Evil that is left as an aside in the film but definitely informs the storybook happy ending?

This is a movie about, by and for cocaine; a film in which the term imbroglio is said; where everyone is so sexed up that you can almost smell the Pine-sol scent of an adult book store’s neon flashing into the cold and foggy niht beckoning couples that are ready to decimate their lives for momentary and fleeting glimpses of the kind of orgasms they read about in letters to Penthouse; where women say things like, “Well, honey, I am a witch” and throw seance parties; and you wondder how can Tim ever settle down with Madeline with those bodies still floating out there and they’ve seen so much and done so much and the world is aways temptation because you can’t slow down and leave a pretty corpse after you’ve lived this kind of life; I came from this place, but my hometown is a small Western Pennsylvania town that has a brick building that is closed five nights a week but on Saturday and Sunday draws swingers from around the East Coast, a place where the English teacher who told me I’d never be a writer took a little blue pill and got in the hot tub and my grandmother heard on the scanner that he had one of those erections they warn you about in the commercials and they had to cut the blood to his member to stop the pain.

I mean, this is the movie where Wings Hauser and Isabella Rossellini have a shouting match made up of the following words:

“I made you come 16 times in a night.”

“Not one of them was good.”

“That’s because you’ve got no womb!”

You have to love Mailer, who made this his way, and then even read the negative commentary cards from a screening in the trailer.

I told you all this to tell you that if everything that Cannon did, if every line of coke and every wild story from Cannes and every failure was all so that this movie could be made, it was all so very much worth it.

You can get this movie from Vinegar Syndrome.

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