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Tough Guys Don't Dance

Promotional film poster
Directed by Norman Mailer
Produced by Menahem Golan
Yoram Globus
Written by Norman Mailer (novel)
Norman Mailer (screenplay)
Starring Ryan O'Neal
Isabella Rossellini
Debra Sandlund
Wings Hauser
John Bedford Lloyd
Lawrence Tierney
Penn Jillette
John Snyder
Music by Angelo Badalamenti
Cinematography Mike Moyer
John Bailey
Editing by Debra McDermott
Distributed by Cannon Films
Release date(s) September 18, 1987 (USA)
Running time 110 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $5,000,000 (estimated)
Gross revenue $858,250 (USA)

Tough Guys Don't Dance is a 1987 film from Cannon Films written and directed by Norman Mailer based on his novel of the same name. It is a murder mystery/film noir piece that was scorned both by audiences and critics alike. It was screened out of competition at the 1987 Cannes Film Festival.[1]



Writer, ex-con and 40-something bottle-baby Tim Madden, who is prone to black-outs, awakens from a two-week bender to discover a pool of blood in his car, a blond woman's severed head in his marijuana stash, and the new Provincetown police chief, Capt. Alvin Luther Regency, shacked up with his former girlfriend Madeleine. As his father Dougy helps him try to unravel the mystery, he is dogged by the psychotic Regency, who has it in for Tim as a car-crash that he was involved in with Madeline has left her unable to have children.



The critical reception was less than stellar. Hal Hinson of the Washington Post said that the film was "hard to classify; at times you laugh raucously at what's up on the screen; at others you stare dumbly, in stunned amazement." Roger Ebert, in a 2 1/2 star review in the Chicago Sun-Times praised the cinematography, the Provincetown setting, and said that the relationship between Tim and Dougy was the best aspect of the film, but also had to say that "what is strange is that Tough Guys Don't Dance leaves me with such vivid memories of its times and places, its feelings and weathers, and yet leaves me so completely indifferent to its plot. Watching the film, I laughed a good deal."

However, the film had at least two supporters. Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Chicago Reader, said "Norman Mailer's best film, adapted from his worst novel, shows a surprising amount of cinematic savvy and style." Also, "He translates his high rhetoric and macho preoccupations (existential tests of bravado, good orgasms, murderous women, metaphysical cops) into an odd, campy, raunchy comedy-thriller that remains consistently watchable and unpredictable--as goofy in a way as Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Where Russ Meyer featured women with oversize breasts, Mailer features male characters with oversize egos, and thanks to the juicy writing, hallucinatory lines such as "Your knife is in my dog" and "I just deep-sixed two heads" bounce off his cartoonish actors like comic-strip bubbles; even his sexism is somewhat objectified in the process." Vincent Canby of the New York Times said that "Not the high point of the Mailer career, but it's a small, entertaining part of it."

The film did poorly at the box office, making only $858,250, nearly a fifth of its $5,000,000 budget. It (as of June 5, 2008) holds a 41% "rotten" rating at Rotten Tomatoes.

However, in the years since the film's release on video, it's become a cult classic in bad movie circles. Channel 4 Film said "The overkill is strangely compelling and Mailer's disregard for taste and convention ensure his film is a massive but spectacular and unmissable folly." The movie apparently got enough of a following for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, who owns much of Cannon's film library, to release an anamorphic widescreen DVD of the film on September 16, 2003. The disc contained an interview with Norman Mailer, a tour of Provincetown and the film's trailer.

This film also includes the unofficially-proclaimed "worst line reading ever", wherein Ryan O'Neal reads a note on a beachline, and his nearly monotone reaction to it is the repeated uttering "Oh man, oh god, oh man, oh god, oh man, oh god!". This scene has become a popular internet meme.


  • Norman Mailer, in the interview on the DVD, said that he was counseled to cut the ending of the scene in which Ryan O'Neal's character Tim Madden reads a note from his ex-girlfriend Madeline informing him that his wife was having an affair with her husband in which he exclaims "Oh Man! Oh God! Oh Man! Oh God! Oh Man! Oh God! Oh Man! Oh God! Oh Man! Oh God!" due to O'Neal's poor performance. Mailer kept it in because he thought the poor line-reading actually added something to the picture. O'Neal, who had been friendly with Mailer, turned on him as the bit revealed his short-comings as an actor and embarrassed him.
  • Roger Donahue was the prizefighter thanked by Norman Mailer for telling him the anecdote that resulted in the title. The anecdote was: Frank Costello, the Murder Inc. honcho, and his gorgeous girlfriend greet three champion boxers in the Stork Club. Costello demands that each, in turn, dance with the woman, and each nervously complies. The last, Willy Pep, suggests that Mr. Costello dance. Costello replied, 'Tough guys don't dance.'
  • The script had revisions done by Chinatown and Last Woman on Earth scribe/script doctor Robert Towne.


Group Award Won?
Independent Spirit Awards 1988
Best Cinematography (John Bailey) No
Best Feature (Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus) No
Best Female Lead (Debra Sandlund) No
Best Supporting Male (Wings Hauser) No
Group Award Won?
Golden Raspberry Awards 1988
Worst Director (Norman Mailer) Yes, tied with Elaine May for Ishtar
Worst Actor (Ryan O'Neal) No
Worst Actress (Debra Sandlund) No
Worst New Star (Debra Sandlund) No
Worst Picture (Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus) No
Worst Screenplay (Norman Mailer) No
Worst Supporting Actress (Isabella Rossellini, also for Siesta) No



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