Norman Mailer + Jean-Luc Godard

At the 1985 Cannes Film Festival, Godard approached Menahem Golan, of Cannon Films, and asked him to produce a film of "King Lear." Golan agreed, and wrote out a contract on a napkin from the bar where they were meeting, adding one clause: the script would be written by Norman Mailer. Godard's first move was to sign Orson Welles as an actor, or "guide"; but after Welles died later that year Godard came up with another idea: Mailer himself would play King Lear, and his daughter Kate, an actress, would play Cordelia.

"I finally decided that the only way to do a modern 'King Lear'—because that was what Menahem Golan wanted—was to make him a Mafia godfather," Mailer said. "I couldn't conceive of anyone else in my range of understanding who would disown a daughter for refusing to compliment him. So I turned it into a script I called 'Don Learo' "—pronounced "lay-AH-ro"—"which to my knowledge Godard never looked at." Mailer shouldn't have been surprised, inasmuch as Godard hadn't read Shakespeare's play, either. Instead, Godard admitted, he watched all the available filmed versions of it: "I had a vague idea that there was this girl who says, 'Nothing,' and that was enough."

Although Godard had intended to make the film near Mailer's house in Provincetown, he suddenly summoned Norman and Kate Mailer to Switzerland. "When we got there, to the hotel, he wanted to start shooting right away, and so he started giving me lines, and I was hardly playing King Lear. He said, 'You will be Norman Mailer in this.' And then he gave me some lines, and they were really, by any comfortable measure, dreadful. They would be lines like, I'd pick up the phone and I'd say, 'Kate, Kate, you must come down immediately, I have just finished the script, it is superb'—stuff like that. He was shooting, and we were getting some dreadful stuff. . . . I said to him, 'Look, I really can't say these lines. If you give me another name than Norman Mailer, I'll say anything you write for me, but if I'm going to be speaking in my own name, then I've got to write the lines, or at least I've got to be consulted on the lines.' So he was very annoyed and he said, 'That's the end of shooting for the day.' "

Godard conceded that the difficulties in their relationship stemmed in part from his way of working ("I don't know very well what I want to do, so he couldn't really have a discussion about it. He had nothing to do but obey, to have confidence in me"), but he also believes that Mailer was hostile to his vision of the film, which was supposed to be like "reportage" of Mailer's relationship with his daughter. "When he saw that he was going to have to talk about himself and his family, it was all over, in a quarter hour," Godard told me. "And that's the little piece that stayed in the film, but he left the next day" (a mutual decision, according to Mailer). To a journalist from Le Monde who visited the set, Godard added one fillip: "He left, being unable, he said, 'to see himself represented in a situation of incest.' " When I mentioned this to Mailer, he asked me, "Is it a reasonable demand to ask someone to, in their own name, play that they have an incestuous relationship to their daughter?"

After Mailer quit, Godard asked Rod Steiger, Lee Marvin, and Richard Nixon to play the part; all three turned him down.

Richard Brody
"An Exile in Paradise"

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