Jun 26, 2013

Book Review--Lee Marvin: Point Blank

Lee Marvin: Point Blank
Dwayne Epstein
Schaffner Press, 2013

Lee Marvin was born to perform. He was magnetic, theatrical and always in need of a way to burn off his considerable energy. It was natural that he would have been invited to act on the stage, which he was for a community theater in upstate New York when he was working as a plumber's assistant after World War II. The whole town was already enjoying his performances: his voice, walk and curious shorthand way of speaking. So why not put him in a spotlight?

That doesn't mean Marvin was an effortless performer. Maybe some things came to him easily, and he certainly didn't believe in intensive techniques like The Method, but you can't tell me that his understated and controlled performance in Monte Walsh (1970) didn't take work, or that he bristled his way through Point Blank (1967) without thinking carefully about that character. He was born an actor, but he never took his gift for granted.

I never knew much about Lee Marvin personally before I read Point Blank, except that he spoke his mind, drank and had a nasty common law support battle with his former live-in girlfriend Michelle Triola. Reading the random bits of set gossip from former co-stars, I got the impression that he was a good person, but I essentially saw him as a rough-living wild man. The book didn't steer me away from any of these ideas, but it did give me a lot more to consider.

This is the first comprehensive biography of Marvin, and it reveals a troubled man who approached his career with diligence and professionalism, but never seemed to believe he deserved the happiness it brought him. There are plenty of stories of Lee getting kicked out of schools and bar fights, the kinds of things that are well-known about him. It was more surprising to learn of Marvin's sensitivity, such as how he was loyal to agent Meyer Mishkin for his entire career, the way he subtly watched out for a young actress on a set full of rowdy men and his enduring respect for the role his first wife Betty played in his success.

Marvin may not have been a topline star for long, but he didn't struggle to find work. Under Mishkin's brilliant guidance, he steadily advanced from clear-cut bad guy supporting roles to starring as counter culture antiheroes. Though these parts increased in complexity, there were many common elements among them. Marvin wasn't a romantic hero, so there was always an edge, some action and plenty of violence.

That last element played a powerful role in Marvin's life. He served as a Marine in World War II, and while the discipline was necessary for a schoolboy who could never settle down, the violence he witnessed scarred him for life. Extensive excerpts from his letters home during the war describe some of the horrors that he experienced, and there are incidents so terrible that even in this day they could not make it to the silver screen. For this reason, Marvin insisted on authenticity in screen violence. In an interview he said, "I say make it so brutal that a man thinks twice before he does anything like that." That said, Lee itched for the turbulence of a rowdy tussle. Many times he would throw himself into a bar fight just to work out his demons.

Marvin drank most of his adult life, in varying degrees of intensity. Sometimes he was a party boy, maybe a bit too wild, but capable of maintaining his daily responsibilities. As he got older, that balance became uneasy, and his relationships and health suffered, though he managed to maintain his professionalism. Epstein is careful to note that PTSD likely contributed to Marvin's alcoholism without attempting to place full blame on the condition. The war did its damage, but an inborn restlessness and growing youthful cynicism in reaction to his parent's troubled relationship took their toll as well. And then there's that mystery about any person, who's to say exactly what goes wrong?

Epstein's sources try to answer that question, and they do have some interesting insights. They range from costars like Angie Dickenson and Woody Strode, to his loyal and proudly ethical business manager. Overall they're loyal to Marvin, but often also exhausted, and sometimes traumatized by his behavior.

Marvin's first wife Betty is all these things, and she talks about her ex-husband with a wryly acidic mixture of affection and exasperation. She is a constant presence in the book, and while normally I would be skeptical of a single source being given this much weight in a biography, I think it was for a good reason in this case. The original Mrs. Marvin is tough, but fair and she seems to understand the father of her four children better than anyone else. (She wrote her own book by the way.)

As thoroughly as Point Blank examines its subject, there were a few omissions in the book that mystified me. Though Marvin was married to his second wife Pamela Feeley for seventeen years, there was so little detail about her that it is almost impossible to determine what kind of a person she was. There are hints that it wasn't a brilliant marriage, and maybe even on the skids by the end of Marvin's life, but there's no explanation as to why. You also get the barest hint of information about his three daughters: Courtney, Cynthia and Claudia, though his son Christopher gets several mentions, and even wrote the afterward. I wondered if these women had wanted to be excluded, but there's no explanation one way or the other.

I expected to finish Lee Marvin: Point Blank liking its subject. As wild a reputation as he had, I never got the impression Marvin was a disagreeable man. What surprised me was to learn how deeply sensitive he could be. Nobody makes excuses for him in this book, biographer included, but all agree that he had a good soul and was capable of remarkable kindness. The devil never left him, but it didn't rule him either.

Deepest thanks to Schaffner Press for providing a review copy of the book.


  1. Wonderful review K.C.! I love your last line "The devil never left him, but it didn't rule him either."

    And I also appreciate how you consistently review classic film related books. :-)

  2. Thank you Quelle! That last line sums up the spirit of the book pretty accurately. It was a complex task to write about Marvin, and I thought Dwayne did an amazing job.

    The book reviews have become a mission for me. These people work hard to keep classic movies alive and I want to spread the word! There's so much good stuff out there right now.