There may never have been a book more ideally suited for a particular bookstore.
“ Lee Marvin: Point Blank” is a thoughtful exposition of one of Hollywood’s most intriguing characters. Loveable Rogue, a downtown Novato bookstore with a “man-cave” atmosphere, will be hosting the book’s author on Friday night.
Dwayne Epstein, who authored “Point Blank,” admits freely that the first question he gets asked is, “Why Lee Marvin?”
Epstein, a movie buff, had a number of screen idols, including Steve McQueen, James Cagney and Burt Lancaster. But those stars had already been profiled numerous times. Lee Marvin had been mostly, inexplicably, ignored, and a fellow writer with Hollywood connections told Epstein that he’d be a great subject. It proved to be an understatement.
That was nearly 20 years ago, when Epstein embarked on a journey to reveal the man beneath the myth.
“He’s more than just what he appears to be on the screen,” Epstein said.
But to learn that, Epstein had an uphill battle. Most of Marvin’s family was tight-lipped and the actor died in 1987, well before the Internet could amass gigabytes of data.
Epstein finally managed to get Marvin’s brother to open up. It took two months to gain his trust, and then Epstein had his foot in the door. “I pretty much ransacked his home,” Epstein jokes. He gathered photos and information about Marvin’s childhood and time in the Marines — a violent experience that would forge his adult character.
For the chapter covering Marvin’s military career, Epstein chose to rely heavily on the man’s own letters and accounts. “I let him write this himself,” Epstein said, adding that Marvin’s insights were powerful and led to the conclusion that he may very well had been a victim of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“He had all of the symptoms: alcoholism, survivor’s guilt, an attraction to violence,” Epstein said. Since PTSD hadn’t been a diagnosed problem until more recently, Marvin never got help. And it led to bristly relationships with his wives and children.
Marvin’s image was largely misunderstood, Epstein said. While he very often had a gun in his hand in movie roles, he depicted violence in a way that was meant to be anti-violent.
“Until then, violence was always cartoony,” Epstein said. “He really predates Clint Eastwood in this style of violence.”
While he was a looming, ominous figure, Epstein said Marvin was only problematic to a point. “He had a built-in filter,” Epstein said. “He knew there was a stopping point.”
Too often that stopping point came from slipping into an alcohol-induced sleep. “Point Blank” shares some of Marvin’s exploits while boozing, but Epstein didn’t want to weigh the story down in that theme.
Instead, Epstein manages to secure interviews with a range of Marvin’s Hollywood peers and eventually managed to get more family members to chime in.
“I had some lucky timing,” Epstein said. “Many of those people have passed away since [interviewing them].”
While he achieved star status with films like “The Dirty Dozen,” Marvin just missed on being a mega-star. He was the top box office star in 1967 and remained in the top 10 for several years, but wasn't placed in that elite "leading man" club. An actor who took his craft seriously, he just kept working. And thinking.
“It was more than just a paycheck,” Epstein said of Marvin’s work. “There was a message to the audience of anti-violence.”
For instance, Marvin appreciated his character’s name in the classic western “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” Epstein reported that Marvin, reminiscing about the movie in which he was particularly aggressive and violence, said, “Liberty is a very dangerous thing.”
There were some family myths to be busted, too, including the death of a relative on an expedition to the North Pole. No spoilers here, you have to read it in Epstein’s own words.
Delving into a man’s life for two decades can throw off a biographer’s perspective, and while Epstein learned a lot about a guy who is not well known, he appreciated what he gleaned. “I think more highly of him because of what he’d gone through,” Epstein said. “He not only persevered, but he triumphed.”
Epstein will be at the Loveable Rogue bookstore, 867 Grant Ave., Novato, on Friday, April 19, 7 p.m. Seating is limited. Tickets, bought at the store, cost $5. Call (415) 895-1081 for information.
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