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Lee Marvin at 90: Marvin Biographer Dwayne Epstein On Late Actor's Titanic Legacy

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Lee Marvin's life was detailed in the quintessential biography.

A laptop in the hands of the right cinephile can yield something important -- something to be enjoyed by film scholars and fans, something for the ages. Of course, the computer laptop wasn't what it is today in 1994, when Hollywood journalist Dwayne Epstein enlisted himself as biographer to the late Lee Marvin, widely known for the tough guy he played in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and as the blood and guts rifle squad leader in Sam Fuller's The Big Red One.

After nearly twenty years of eating, breathing, and sleeping Marvin, the Long-Beach-resident Epstein delivered Lee Marvin: Point Blank, considered the first authoritative and exhaustive document about the steely-eyed actor's family background, the ghosts of his Marine past in WWII, his marriages, and his PTSD, which cast a dark shadow over a career marked by alcoholism, rage and depression.

We were fortunate to wax cinematic with Epstein about why he thinks Marvin belongs on Hollywood's Mount Rushmore of Tough. (Shouldn't there be one?)

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Author Dwayne Epstein.

What was it about Lee Marvin that you'd commit nearly two decades to telling his story?
Very good question. The answer is kind of multi-leveled. Off the bat, I could tell you my answer to that question -- Why Lee Marvin? -- is very simply, I'm a fan. Now there was one book that was written when he was alive, but it's not very good, so that was another motivating factor. Once I started doing the initial research, I became more fascinated. I've got to tell you, too, nobody gets into this kind of thing for the money. You've got to do it because you're dedicated and you believe in what you're doing. At one point, Lee's first wife, Betty, whom I got to know very well, said to me, "Aren't you getting sick of Lee? I know I would, and I was married to the man."

I knew once I decided to do this, I knew I was going to have to be involved in this project for the long haul. It wasn't going to be anything I could walk away from right away.

How long into the writing process did you feel that you had the exclusivity or think, "I'm the guy to tell this story, no one else?"
Early on, I wasn't very confident at all. I don't think you necessarily have to identify with your subject, but you have to have some way to know what you're writing about. He was of a different time and a different place, entirely. I didn't live through the Depression. I didn't see combat in World War II. I'm a Baby Boomer. That whole lifestyle and existence is foreign to me. But the more I found out about him, the more I realized that's true, yes, but there was a lot about Lee Marvin that I thought people just don't know, or realize. Yes, he's a product of his time, but in a lot of ways he was very different from his time in that he -- believe it or not, he very early on stated that he has no problem with gay rights and that he thought homosexuality was fine. You know, you're not going to hear John Wayne say that.

Not a chance!
According to Betty, she found Lee to be quite the feminist, in spite of his reputation that came out of the palimony suit. She said Lee, because his mother was a working woman when he was a child, he didn't see women necessarily as the lesser sex. He saw them as equal and he treated them as such. As his lawyer said to me, he treated women as equals in all their various gradations.

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With James Stewart and John Wayne in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.


Okay, you've written this definitive biography, but were there any epiphanies about Marvin in your research where you might have said to yourself, "Wow, I wasn't expecting that?"

Absolutely, from the minute to the overwhelming, and everything in between. It was a spectrum of finding things and that's one of the things that kept me going on the project is that I never hit a dead end. Just on the most superficial level, I was amazed to find out that Lee was a huge fan of the blues and jazz. I don't know why, for some reason I never would have thought of that. But he loved classic blues. His son told me -- and he doesn't even know if this is true or not, but Lee loved to tell people -- he ran away from home a lot when he was a little boy. He was actually on a train to Chicago when he was four. I mean, he didn't waste any time. Apparently on one of these trips he met in a boxcar Blind Lemon Jefferson, and became a fan. His son Christopher even said to me, "I don't know if that's true or not, but I'd like to think it is." When they were making Emperor of the North, which is one of my favorite films of his, he amazed everybody on the set with his knowledge of not only antique trains of the '20s and '30s, which is, when the movie takes place, during the Depression, He also knew every railroad blues song ever written. He was constantly singing them Keith Carradine who co-starred with him, is on record as saying, "The guy knows so much it's fucking spooky." He was just fascinating in that way.

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As Charlie Strom in The Killers.

The other thing is that because of the kind of persona he had, and the characters he played, people assume he was some right-wing conservative, politically or philosophically. Not true. They make the false assumption that he must have been like John Wayne or Clint Eastwood because of what he did in his films. He was actually a liberal Democrat. He was a delegate for John F. Kennedy in 1960. But after Kennedy was assassinated, he never publicly stated anything about his politics again.

One neighbor of his that I interviewed said, "I wouldn't say he was to the left of Mao Zedong or anything, but he was a pretty liberal guy." I would say about the only thing he was conservative about was gun rights. He was a very strong proponent of the Second Amendment, which is, understandable. That's some of the things I would come across that surprised me.

I put forth this hypothesis that Lee Marvin invented the modern American cinema of violence. When you study somebody's career, you're going to see natural threads, come forward and take place, and themes. In the work of Lee Marvin, violence always played a part, not necessarily if the character was violent or if the story was, but either one or the other, or it was in his background or what have you. In any given film, it didn't matter. And I thought, what about the idea that before him there were action films, which of course, there still are, but with Lee it was about violence, and where did that come from? To my mind Lee Marvin was to film violence what Marlon Brando was to film acting or Elvis Presley was to pop culture -- to pop music, what Jack Kerouac may have been to contemporary literature. He was a dividing line between what was and what is.

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PFC Lee Marvin, 4th Marine Battalion. South Pacific, 1944


Let's talk about the war. Did you ever find people in his outfit to talk to you about his experience?

Most of his outfit was wiped out during the war. He was one of only six survivors of 247 men in his unit. He got wounded on Saipan. I didn't know this, but I discovered that anybody who knows World War II history will tell you that the Battle of Saipan was one of the bloodiest of the war. It went on for several weeks. It wasn't a couple of days, like some battles were.

Lee got wounded and when he was convalescing, he always thought he was going to get back into the fight again. By the time he was OK, the war ended. For many more of his outfit, the next battle was Iwo Jima and they got hit even worse there. So he suffered intense survivor guilt: "Why me? Why did I survive while everybody else got wiped out?"

I did interview some people who knew him in the war, who had also known him in school. So, that was helpful. As much as I wanted to use those quotes, I decided to just write that chapter in Lee's own words through the letters he wrote his family.


Did Lee Marvin have a cynical attitude towards Hollywood?

He didn't necessarily care for producers or studio heads per se. Keep in mind too, he was not immune to the underpinnings of Hollywood. For the most part, however, Lee had an excellent built-in bullshit detector. He knew when somebody was a phony a mile away, as a general rule.

Lee Marvin was also amazing in the sense that he didn't seek out to show his versatility in genres so much as he sought to make a point in different genres about one thing and how important that one thing is: That no matter what we do in our lives, violence is going to be a part of it. You may not necessarily agree with that assessment, or that man is a violent animal, but that came across in every single thing he did. Lee was the only one who consistently let the audience know that what you're seeing him do onscreen is as close to the real thing as you can possibly get. He was not interested in showing fantasy. He might show adventure and show action, and the audience can come along for the ride, but for the most part, if he hits somebody, they're going to go down. And when they're down, he's going to kick them. That was his point of view, because he believed the more realistic you showed violence on film, the better a deterrent it is.

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Detective Lt. Frank Ballinger on TV's M Squad

There's John Wayne, in terms of what I'm talking about, about action on film and male machismo. Then there's Lee, and then there's probably Clint Eastwood. There would not have been a Clint Eastwood if there wasn't a Lee Marvin first.

I want to emphasize that adjective "American," because there had been some very graphic violence in foreign films before America loosened its grip in its films with the fall of the studio system and the production code.

Of course there's that great line in Quentin Tarantino's Resevoir Dogs that pays homage him too: "You must be a big Lee Marvin fan."
The two most prominent filmmakers in America of action films -- or not so much action films, but films of a violent nature that are to the extreme, done better than anybody else -- are Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino. But the two of them, aside from that, have something else in common. In both of their debut films, they pay homage to Lee Marvin. Not necessarily John Wayne, not necessarily even Clint Eastwood or others who had come before, but specifically Lee Marvin.

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A break between scenes during production of The Big Red One, with the film's writer/director Samuel Fuller.

As a former Marine, what were Lee's views toward America's involvement in Vietnam?
I asked his son Christopher about that and he said, "Yes, we talked about that a lot. And he was against the war." That's all he told me. I wouldn't say that Lee was pro-military per se -- well, maybe I would. He was pro-military. I would go that far, sure. But he certainly wasn't pro-war. When it came to the Vietnam War, he was against it, although he didn't say so publicly. Christopher told me he would talk to him about it. Christopher didn't always get along with his father, because they were of different generations and different morals and what have you. He did say that one of the things they bonded on was British Invasion blues rock. He liked Led Zeppelin. He liked Jimi Hendrix. He liked Eric Clapton, because they got their roots in American blues. And, Lee recognized that.

What do you want people to most know about Lee Marvin's career?
If people take anything away from our conversation, I'd like it to be that they might be intrigued or have their appetite whetted and they watch some Lee Marvin movies that they may not have seen before. I think if they do do that, I think they'll be pleasantly surprised.They should see The Professionals, Monte Walsh, and Emperor of the North, The Iceman Cometh, The Big Red One, most definitely. And films before he was a star are definitely worth watching: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Big Heat, a strange quirky film he did in the '50s called Shack Out on 101.

Did you celebrate Lee's 90th birthday?

Interesting you would ask. I wasn't planning on celebrating at all, but my girlfriend had a wonderful idea. I spent most of the day utilizing the fact that it was Lee Marvin's birthday by trying to promote the heck out of it online. Then we hit a certain point of the night where I got, bleary-eyed, and my girlfriend said to me, "I think we ought to get ourselves a bottle of brandy and watch The Dirty Dozen." And, indeed, we did.

To learn more about Lee Marvin visit Dwayne Epstein's website.

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