“Lee Marvin – A Personal Portrait” is a documentary by director John Boorman, Marvin’s friend and collaborator. It is about 40 minutes long and completely fascinating. If you haven’t got time to watch it, I’ve made some notes below. It could be said that the portrait which emerges is not only that of a great actor but of great actors; ambivalent and self-contradictory in nature, poetic and with an instinct for truth, a seriousness toward not only the craft of the actor but of cinema in general, supportive and protective of fellow artists, and possessing a courage which enables personal trauma to reverberate in art.
1. Boorman says there were two faces of Lee Marvin: the buffoon with the brilliant comic timing, and the stone-faced man of violence.
2. Director Jim Jarmusch, who reads a passage from Marvin’s memoirs in the documentary, said that he had a hard, cruel, unemotional, impenetrable surface, but that a certain tenderness leaks out from underneath it .
3. He could sniff out the slack and the false. He posed riddles, he hinted, he spoke in parables, he was always searching for the perfect gesture or move to express an emotion.
(Point Blank was Marvin and Boorman’s first collaboration – Marvin plays a man hell-bent on revenge after being double-crossed and left for dead).
4. Boorman said that Point Blank was almost a study of Marvin himself, a man trying to recover his lost humanity after being shot (echoing Marvin’s own experience in the Marines).
5. In one scene, Marvin was supposed to ask his wife a series of questions, but didn’t, he remained silent. The actress playing opposite him waited, but Lee continued to be silent. Then she started answering the questions Marvin was supposed to ask. He was trying to demonstrate the emotion of the moment. His presence, his stillness, his silence, carried the threat of violence.
6. Marvin often tried to find indirect ways of expressing violence. In one scene, he shoots the telephone and not the man. In another, instead of beating up a second-hand car dealer, Marvin beats up his car. Instead of attacking a secretary, he destroys the cable which connects her phone to her boss’.
7. Boorman says Marvin understood the grammar of film, the force of images.
8. When they came to shoot the final scene of Point Blank, Boorman was exhausted and couldn’t work-out how to do it. Marvin noticed this and started roaring and singing and falling on his face. The production manager approached Boorman and said that Marvin couldn’t be filmed in that state. So they took him away and gave him black coffee, thinking it would ‘sober’ him up. This gave Boorman a breather, during which he figured out how to do the scene.
9. Marvin had been a Marine and fought in the Pacific War, he was a sniper. His platoon had been ambushed at Saipan and wiped out. There were few survivors but Marvin was one of them. He made several films where he played out the horror of his war experience on screen. A psychologist had worked with Marvin to find links between his war experiences and his acting.
10. Boorman says Marvin was engaged in a personal quest, and that somehow the violence he expressed on screen (he had beaten up most of the major movie stars of that time; James Stewart, Clint Eastwood, even John Wayne) was a burden he carried around with him. The War haunted him.
11. Boorman said he viewed Lee Marvin as a ‘spiritual warrior’.