David Mamet is arguably the most important and the most accomplished playwright working in America today. Over the last decade, he has created a respectable body of work for the stage and the screen.
This year is particularly good for Mamet, allowing him to display his multiple talents in every medium of entertainment. His successful screen adaptation of his Pulitzer Prize winning drama, Glengarry Glen Ross, starring Jack Lemmon and Al Pacino, is touted as a serious contender for the Oscar Award.
Mamet has also written the screenplay for the eagerly awaited bio-picture Hoffa, starring Jack Nicholson, which will open in December. His new Off Broadway work, Oleanna, a two-character play which promises to be an up-to the moment meditation on the political and sexual warfare, is now previewing in New York. And if this is not enough, later this year, Mamet will direct in L.A. a new version of Hamlet, starring W.H. Macy, Michael J. Fox, Treat Williams, and Whoopi Goldberg.
Life in Hollywood was not always easy for Mamet. His first produced script was the unsuccessful remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice, adapted from James M. Cain’s famous novel. You may also recall the l987 scandal, when Mamet wanted to remove his name from Brian De Palma’s hugely popular The Untouchables, claiming that the movie did not use the script he submitted. This frustration, fortified by his wish to be in control of his work, provided the motivation for Mamet’s decision to become a filmmaker. Indeed, he made a stunning debut as a director with House of Games (l987), a slick but engrossing study of deceit and its various guises.
In Glengarry Glen Ross, the real estate salesmen who work for Premier Properties are a wild and abrasive bunch. Mamet has a special gift for drawing realistic portraits of lowlifers who are harsh but also funny. A good deal of the salesmen’s time is spent communicating with clients and socializing at their office, while waiting for the new leads and information on new buyers. The dramatic tension is inherent in the rancorous but always engaging dialogue itself–not in the melodramatic aspects of the story that involve theft and police investigation.
However, with all the attempts to “open up” the play, the film’s sensibility is still theatrical. For one thing, the picture maintains the play’s unity of time–taking place over a period of 24 hours or so. And while switching the action from the claustrophobic interiors of the office, to a telephone booth or to a Chinese restaurant, the sets and lighting are deliberately stylized.
Mamet’s dialogue is more effective on stage than on screen. His spare, gritty writing may remind you of the rhythms and silences of the great British playwright Harold Pinter. But by incorporating values from his native Chicago (and in this work his experience as a worker in a real-estate office), Mamet’s brand of modernist minimalism becomes distinctly and uniquely American.
There are changes between the stage and screen versions. The film features a new character that was not in the original play: Blake (expertly played by Alec Baldwin), the big boss, whose motto is “ABC–Always Be Closing.” Baldwin’s one scene, early on in the film, sets the intense tone for the entire narrative.
Jack Lemmon, as the alternately desperate and deceiving Shelley Levine, and Al Pacino, as the shrewd, oily and self-confident Ricky Roma, are excellent. Both actors have great moments and deserve kudos for their work; Lemmon, in fact, renders one of his “cleaner” and less actorish performances in years.
However, I’m still haunted by the performances of Vincent Gardenia, as Levine, and Joe Montegna, as Roma, in the New York stage version. By playing Roma as a nicer and more human guy, Pacino makes his character more accessible, even likable; on stage, Montegna was sleazier and his delivery of lines sharper and more ironic.
Mamet shrewdly cons the audience, implicating it into complicity with him. Indeed, viewers will relate to the movie on both visceral and intellectual levels. Most of us have come into contact with real estate agents and have experienced the anger and humiliation that a buyer like Jonathan Pryce feels in the film. But the accomplishment of the movie is that Mamet’s vision of the business world as hell–both immoral and amoral–touches deep chords in all of us and not just as clients. It is this universality of meaning that elevates the play and film into a major work of art.
Unlike Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Glengarry Glen Ross is unsanctimonious and unsentimental. More importantly, unlike Miller’s language, which is vague, preachy and moralistic, Mamet’s rant is precise and authentic. With some luck, the prominence of Glengarry Glen Ross as a play and the commercial appeal of the film may force us to reevaluate Death of a Salesman’s undeserved status as a great American classic, relegating it to perhaps a monument, but one of the distant past.