“I bet you’re a big Lee Marvin fan aren’t ya? Yeah, me too” said Mr. Blonde to Mr. White in Quentin Tarantino’s RESERVOIR DOGS (1992). The two characters were in the midst of a confrontation and both were ready to pull out the heat and get to slinging bullets, but the situation is quickly diffused. The moment Mr. Blonde utters Lee Marvin’s name we know exactly what he means, cinematically at least. He’s describing an actor who could portray characters with a mean streak a mile wide. Tough as nails, crafty, and yet could turn on a dime to win the dame. Less was known about Marvin’s private life; there were stories in the rags and upset actors that liked to talk, Marvin liked to talk as well but would keep changing his story so nobody knew the truth. Considering what an icon Marvin has become it’s really surprising that we haven’t had more details on a man with over 100 credits to his name and countless memorable roles. Thankfully, author Dwayne Epstein has done cinephiles a solid, because his book LEE MARVIN: POINT BLANK (2013, Schaffner Press, http://www.schaffnerpress.com/) is a well written and exhaustively researched book on the actor who was underrated as a performer and ignored when it came to biographies of our past stars.
Marvin was going to end up in prison, on the streets, or dead. Born in New York City in 1924 to a salesman and a wannabe journalist (who had dreams of stardom herself), Marvin had a childhood that was troubled to say the least. His family didn’t lack love for him and his brother, but they lacked the ability to show it which created an unfulfilled need for Marvin to belong to someone, somewhere. When he wasn’t swinging his fists to start (or finish) a rumble, he was running away from home (his first trip was at the age of four when, upset with his father, he hopped on a train and disappeared for two days ending up in Baltimore). On December 7th, 1941, Marvin and his friend were leaving a movie theater when news of the attack on Pearl Harbor came over the radio. Marvin joined the Marines and finally found his place in the world, a “somewhere” for his transient heart. In May of 1942, Marvin sent a letter to his parents saying that war was “the best decision for someone who wants to fight and raise hell.”
After twenty one missions as a sniper, Marvin came home. His military life is documented in several letters he sent to his brother and parents. In doing research for the book, Epstein became close with Marvin’s brother Robert, the letters he shared are a sad journey through war that would later cause great strain on Marvin’s psyche. Though making clear he is not one to make a medical diagnosis, Epstein makes a convincing case that Marvin likely suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). He was often shaken by nightmares, was an alcoholic, and was always looking to disrupt any sense of calm around him. Marvin would often drive to out of the way bars just to start fights in order to feed the beast of anger that seemed to always be lurking just behind his tired eyes.
Eventually, Marvin made his way to Hollywood. After studying in New York he thought it was time to make the move to tinsel town. Though he was given only supporting roles, he quickly made a name for himself. Producers and directors enjoyed giving him projects. “Give it to Lee” was often heard when they had trouble finding the right actor for a role. They knew that Marvin could find something in a character that nobody else could express, leading to dynamic moments in films like THE BIG HEAT, THE WILD ONE, and THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALLANCE.
Convinced to take the television series M SQUAD with the intention of building his brand, Marvin had a deep dislike for the medium and wanted starring roles. He thought he was better than most the stars cashing the big checks and he was right. He eventually had the chance in 1967 with THE PROFESSIONALS but Marvin’s golden era of film really starts in 1964 with THE KILLERS (that era ends in 1983 with GORKY PARK). Along the way he created memorable characters like Major Reisman in THE DIRTY DOZEN, Walker in POINT BLANK (the first film Marvin had total control over), and A No. 1 in EMPEROR OF THE NORTH. Marvin clocked a lot of hours in front of the camera so not all of the films he is in are good, but Marvin always is. Talking to a young Jeff Bridges, Marvin knew that when the camera went tight, he went big. When most actors show restraint, he goes the opposite way. This philosophy is what makes Marvin such a fascinating character to watch and why even in a film like DOG DAY (one of his last), he still has moments despite the entire film working against him.
Biographies tend to drool over the subjects, creating an annoying air of idol worship. Others feel too academic and detached. Epstein spent a great deal of time researching the book and conducting interviews. He is clearly passionate about his subject but he never crosses the line into a sycophant. On the contrary, he treats Marvin almost as a curiosity; an enigma of rage and sadness who had a life peppered with tremendous success and equally significant personal setbacks. It’s endlessly fascinating, exciting, and sometimes frightening. Lee Marvin lived fast, played hard, and punched harder, and Epstein created the definitive document on the actor who defined tough.
Note: Hey kids, stick around after the book is over. In the back is a handy list of important dates in the life of Lee Marvin, the unmade films of Lee Marvin, the films Lee Marvin could have made, and more!
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