David Mamet’s ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’ is a masterwork not to be missed

Jack Lemmon and Kevin Spacey in 'Glengarry Glen Ross'
Jack Lemmon and Kevin Spacey in ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’

Even as Quentin Tarantino continues to ride a tide of popularity for his witty, self-consciously hip banter, there is still one undisputed, heavy weight champion of brilliant screen dialogue.

David Mamet.

Mamet’s been perfecting his trademark patter since his theatrical hits Sexual Perversity in Chicago and About Last Night in the mid-seventies, through his work on Hill Street Blues for television, and his successful film adaptations of The Postman Always Rings Twice and the Paul Newman classic The Verdict, for which he was nominated for his first Oscar (Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium, 1982).

Mamet’s career has been checkered. For every popular hit like The Untouchables, there are several critically acclaimed works like House of Games and The Winslow Boy, or woefully under-appreciated efforts like The Edge that struggled to find an audience. Even after rising to the level of Hollywood royalty, Mamet’s work remains an acquired taste; a full meal, heavy on red meat and bitter vegetables served to a population weaned on a diet of comfort food.

Mamet’s most talked about film to date is the cult favorite Glengarry Glen Ross. And for good reason. Set in the arena of real estate sales, Glengarry is Mamet at his finest; an unflinching, foul-mouthed journey into the lives of desperate men fighting for their jobs, and by extension, their lives. Based on Mamet’s Pulitzer Prize-winning stage play of the same name, Glengarry Glen Ross contains some of the most memorable and quotable dialogue in the author’s long career. For those unfamiliar with “Mametspeak,” Glengarry is a fine introduction.

“You’re talking about what?” asks a superior of his sales staff. “You’re talkin’ about — bitchin’ about that sale you shot, some son of a bitch don’t wanna buy land, somebody don’t want what you’re sellin’, some broad you’re tryin’ to screw, so forth? Let’s talk about something important.”

Classic Mamet — terse, profane and in your face. Mamet’s dialogue doesn’t strive for realism, it rises to the level of working-class poetry. Characters interrupt themselves and restart their sentences mid-thought, speak in telling fragments, etc. It’s precise, musical, driven as mush by rhythm as language.

“The good news is, you’re fired,” the superior barks at his subordinates. “The bad news is you’ve got — all of you’ve got — just one week to regain your jobs, starting with tonight, starting with tonight’s sit!”

A former real estate salesman, Mamet fills Glengarry with the language of the game. A “sit” is a business meeting. A “closer” is someone who sells, or, more literally, closes deals. “Leads” are just that, vital information about potential clients. It’s the leads that matter. Give your sales force bad leads and you’ve tied their hands.

“The leads are week,” one worker protests.

“The leads are weak?” barks the superior. “You’re weak! You can’t play in the man’s game? You can’t close ‘em? Then go home and tell your wife your troubles! ‘Cause only one thing counts in this life — get them to sign on the line which is dotted. You hear me, you fucking faggots?!”

Get the picture? An acquired taste, to be sure. If you like your characters sympathetic, and your storytellers guided by a moral code, then you’ve wandered into the wrong mall.

Shot for twelve million and given a limited run, the film grossed less than eleven million dollars, despite rave reviews. Since its release on video, the film has enjoyed a second life, earning a cult following that it still enjoys today.

For those brave — or strong — enough to hang on for dear life, Glengarry Glen Ross is a masterwork not to be missed. Working with little more than two interior locations, Glengarry proves that less can be more (much more!), that well-written conflict is more engaging than an hour of special effects, and that smart, dialogue-driven films — like the great films of the 40’s and 50’s — can still blow you away, even when there’s little more going on in the frame than conversation.

In addition to Mamet’s writing, and helmer James Foley’s unobtrusive direction,Glengarry‘s success is due, in no small part, to the brilliant performances of its stellar cast. Attracted by Mamet’s work, and eager to work in collaboration with each other, Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Kevin Spacey, Alec Baldwin, Ed Harris, Alan Arkin, and Jonathan Pryce all cut their rates to be a part of the production. Of these, Pacino was the most instrumental in getting the project to the screen.

According to Foley, Pacino saw the play, loved it, and got his hands on Mamet’s screenplay adaptation. Pacino’s intention was to play Ricky Romer, the highest rated salesman in the lowly rated pool (Baldwin gives a different take on Pacino’s commitment to the project in his audio commentary in a bit of telling gossip — telling, that is, of Baldwin). It was Pacino, says Foley, who suggested casting Lemmon.

“This was a time when Jack Lemmon’s was very dicey,” Foley recalls in his audio commentary. “He was still a vital, vibrant actor in the scheme of things, but he had not been in a successful movie in a couple years. So to suggest that he be one of the stars of this movie with Pacino — who was riding high — was not met with enthusiasm.”

While Lemmon’s involvement in the project didn’t light anyone’s fire at New Line, the actor’s commitment meant the world to his peers. With both Pacino and Lemmon attached to the property, the other actors eagerly signed on, and the rest is history.

Each actor brings a unique voice to the production. Pacino is cunning and seductive as the company’s best salesman. Baldwin is eviscerating in his one, show-stopping scene as the condescending superior. Arkin, as always, is solid as the group’s least committed member. Harris is the epitome of the seething professional desperate to re-establish his manhood. Spacey is strong as the cold-hearted company shill with a mean streak, and Pryce delivers the film’s most subtly tortured performances as a fly caught in the web of the company’s biggest spider. But it is Lemmon — the man the studio didn’t want from the get go — that turns in the film’s most heartbreaking performance as an unprincipled salesman unraveling at the seams.

On his commentary, director Foley recalls that the Glengarry Glen Ross set was the least tense set of any film he’d ever worked, despite the on screen acrimony… with one exception.

“I remember that I would come in,” Baldwin says, “and they were all around the coffee urn having coffee and laughing and I walked up, and all the laughing stopped.” Foley recalls the same. “They treated him like shit, which was great,” the director tells, “because it motivated him to treat them back as shit. It wasn’t about Alec at all,” Foley clarifies. “It was about his character.”

From the beginning, all the actors agreed to do Mamet’s screenplay word-for-word; the author’s idiosyncratic dialogue would never work as a whole if any one actor tried to paraphrased it. “We had a script supervisor on the set,” Arkin recalls. “If I had a line that was, “uh…uh…uh,” and I only did two of them, I would get stopped. ‘I’m sorry, there are three of those.’ It was the most exacting work I’ve ever done in my life.”

In addition to the brilliant film, the ten-year anniversary edition DVD is loaded with extras. Compiled after Lemmon’s death, the 2-disc set features a loving tribute to the actor in the form of talking heads interviews with professionals who worked with or knew Lemmon personally. Fittingly, Chris Lemmon, the actor’s only son, begins and ends the tribute titled “Magic Time”, an expression the senior Lemmon often used before shooting his scenes. The similarities between Chris and his father are startling, and the adoration he expresses for his dad is quite moving.

As universally loved and admired as Jack Lemmon was, it does feel odd that more people weren’t brought in for the tribute, most notably the muscle-bound, African-American actor Ving Rhames who, after winning his Best Actor statuette at the Golden Globe Awards three years earlier, tearfully called Lemmon to the stage and gave it to him in exchange for the veteran’s influence on his career. Too bad.

The DVD also features commentaries from director Foley, Alan Arkin, Alec Baldwin, cinematographer Juan Ruiz Anchia, and production designer Jane Musky. An odd detail to note is that none of the commentaries is feature-length. Each commentary jumps abruptly to scenes later in the film, making one suspect their DVD might be damaged. Perhaps the editors of the commentaries felt as DP Anchia did.

“A lot of times you see a book about a photo and how captured it,” Anchia shares, his Spanish accent thick. “And he’s so — intellectual. And you say, well, sometimes you just got the picture. Why to talk more about it? And in films it’s the same. It’s the nature of the moment. You just got it. Why intellectualize the moment?”

The DVD also includes a clip of Jack Lemmon on “Charlie Rose” discussing Glengarry, and a second clip from “Inside the Actor’s Studio” featuring Kevin Spacey interacting with a second year student during that show’s Q&A.

Jeff Margolis, the student in question, has to go down in history as the poster child for hutspa. The previous year when Spacey appeared on the program, Margolis convinced the two-time Academy Award-winner to perform a line from Glengarry. This time around, Margolis convinces Spacey to play part of a scene from Glengarrywith him. It’s a moment that brings down the house, and tickles Spacey — an actor who, by his own admission, jump-started his career with a series of profoundly shameless overtures. In the end, Margolis not only plays the scene with Spacey, but he gets his brass balls moment immortalized forever on the anniversary DVD!

Extras also include a second talking heads documentary featuring lifelong sales people titled A.B.C. (or “Always Be Closing,” the Baldwin character’s command at the head of Glengarry), and a short, 1947 documentary on zealous, Pennsylvania furniture salesman J. Roy. More than A.B.C., Roy’s footage gives viewers their best glimpse into the kind of charismatic, sincere personality that happily chooses a lifetime in sales.

Other features include wide and full screen options, DTS and Dolby Digital sound, English and Spanish subtitles, production notes, cast & crew biographies and an odd little Easter Egg. Go to the Special Features page, highlight the Main Menu option and click the Left button to highlight the bar sign in the Chinese restaurant. Click that and you’re lead to a series of unknown actors taking Baldwin’s abusive monologue out for a spin. Though a case can be made for the difficulty of performing Mamet’s dialogue, it seems mean-spirited to martyr hopefuls obviously out of their depth to make the point.

The one genuinely entertaining moment comes at the end of this extra. One of the actors, an Asian-American, turns to the camera and begins the monologue again in Japanese. Rather than going big with the line, as Baldwin did in the film, the actor delivers her reading with ice in her voice. Though obviously tagged on as a hoot (the moment begins and ends with a gong), it’s a great, telling bit that demonstrates just how chilling Mamet’s intention can be in any language.

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