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Tough Guys Don't Dance (1987)

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 ... See full summary »



(screenplay by), (based on his novel)

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1 win & 10 nominations. See more awards »
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Cast overview, first billed only:
Patty Lareine (as Debra Sandlund)
Jessica Pond
R. Patrick Sullivan ...
Lonnie Pangborn
Kathryn Sanders ...
Ira Lewis ...
Merwyn Finney


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, Captain 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 Capt. 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. Flashing-back to the past, Tim remembers the time when he encouraged Madeline to swing with a Li'l Abnerish couple from down South, the fundamentalist preacher Big Stoop and his Daisy Mae-ish wife, Patty Lareine, whose ad Tim had come across in 'Screw' magazine. It's on the trip back that the car crash occurs, since Madeline is incensed that Tim has so enjoyed Patty Lareine's charms. Except for his father Dougy, who is dying of cancer, Tim suspects everyone, ... Written by Jon C. Hopwood

Plot Summary | Add Synopsis


A love story shadowed by murder. A comedy laced with horror. See more »


R | See all certifications »

Parents Guide:





Release Date:

18 September 1987 (USA)  »

Also Known As:

A Marca do Passado  »


Box Office


$5,000,000 (estimated)

Gross USA:

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Company Credits

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Technical Specs


Sound Mix:



Aspect Ratio:

1.85 : 1
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Did You Know?


The film was screened out of competition at the Cannes Film Festival in 1987. See more »


Tim Madden: Should you drink?
Dougy Madden: Six months ago, they told me to stop or I was dead. I stopped. Now the spirits circle around my bed and they tell me to dance. I tell 'em, "Tough guys don't dance." They answer me, "Keep dancing."
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Referenced in Doogie Howser, M.D.: Tough Guys Don't Teach (1990) See more »


You'll Come Back (You Always Do)
Music by Angelo Badalamenti
Lyrics by Norman Mailer and Angelo Badalamenti
Sung by Mel Tillis
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User Reviews

Oh God! Oh Man! Oh Norman!

Writers, be they Philip Roth or Jacqueline Susann, invariably complain about how Hollywood makes a mess of their work when bringing it to the screen. Norman Mailer was different. Rather than let Hollywood ruin the movie version of his novel "Tough Guys Don't Dance," he chose to ruin it himself. That his movie has the ingredients to be a camp classic yet still falls short is all you need to know about Mailer's skills as a director.

And yet Mailer comes so close to making this disaster enjoyable. Just the dialog alone — an awkward mix 1940s gangster patois, writerly pretensions and gutter vulgarity, usually combined in a single sentence — should make this a must-see. The dialog doesn't sound like it would ever be uttered by actual people yet it's highly quotable (though not here). The only movies I've seen that refer to male genitalia as much as this one were gay porn videos, which is kind of surprising given the gay panic coursing through "Tough Guys" (second only to the misogyny). Or maybe it's not so surprising.

The cast of "Tough Guys Don't Dance" does its part to turn Mailer's movie into campy fun. Ryan O'Neal pounds the last nail into the coffin of his career as Tim Madden, the alcoholic would-be writer who can't quite remember if he's responsible for all the blood in his Jeep or the head buried with his marijuana stash. Though I kept thinking Nicolas Cage would've been so much more fun, O'Neal is actually effective in the role. Too bad his performance can't overcome that awful "oh god oh man" moment on the beach. A miscast Isabella Rossellini delivers her lines as if embarrassed to say them, but in her defense she does have to say things like: "He must have the biggest c—k in all Christendom." If Elizabeth Berkley of "Showgirls" fame were to play Maggie in a dinner theater production of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" it might look something like Debra Sundland's portrayal of Madden's money-hungry ex-wife Patty Lareine. And yet Sundland is never quite that awesome. John Bedford Lloyd plays the part of Patty Lareine's bisexual ex-husband Wardley like a Southern belle suffering from a case of the vapors, so maybe it's perfectly natural that he would use a word like "imbroglio". But it's Wings Hauser who steals the show as the lunatic Capt. Alvin Luther Regency, the police chief—and seemingly the town's sole law enforcement officer—breathing down Tim's neck. Hauser doesn't chew the scenery; he unhinges his jaw and swallows it whole. Only Lawrence Tierney, as Madden's father Dougy, emerges from this movie with his dignity intact.

With a director blinded by ego, over-written dialog and over-the-top acting, "Tough Guys" should be in the same league as "The Oscar," "The Concorde-Airport '79" and the remake of "The Wicker Man." But with the exception of Hauser's performance, it never quite takes off to such giddy lows. It's a movie that's more fun to talk about than actually watch. I remember reading an article about the making of this movie in the late '80s, the lurid plot description – sex! drugs! violence! – enough to make me seek it out when released on video. I was profoundly disappointed. I expected trash, but I didn't expect it to be boring. I re-watched it recently and while I found it more entertaining, I was still disappointed. But Mailer didn't make this movie to please me, or anyone else. As made clear by trailer to his movie, in which the smirking author/auteur reads the scathing comment cards from test screenings, Mailer doesn't care what you think. The only opinion that matters is his, and in his own opinion "Tough Guys Don't Dance" is a good movie. You're just too dumb to appreciate genius.

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