Sensitive Badass: Discussing Lee Marvin With Point Blank Biographer Dwayne Epstein
Stone-faced and brutal, Lee Marvin defined the role of cinematic "tough guy."
Point Blank (1967)
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).
Schaffner Press Dwayne Epstein, author of Point Blank
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.