“While the law [of competition] may be sometimes hard for the individual, it is best for the race, because it ensures the survival of the fittest in every department.”
–Andrew Carnegie, The Gospel of Wealth, 1889
There is no shortage of exotic places for tragedies to play out. Castles in Denmark and Scotland for Hamlet and Macbeth. A palace in ancient Thebes for Oedipus. A high cliff in the Caucasus for Prometheus, and a blasted heath for King Lear.
And, of course, a real estate office across from a Chinese restaurant in downtown Chicago.
Now, desperate men trying to sell swamp land to rubes might at first glance not seem the most promising material for tragedy, but the mark of a good playwright is to find material where others wouldn’t think to look for it. David Mamet is a very good playwright. And he once worked in a real estate office. James Foley’s film version of Mamet’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Glengarry Glen Ross (1992) does the play full justice without making us feel we’re watching a stilted translation from one medium to another. This is the Reservoir Dogs of real estate. For viewers unaware of Glengarry Glen Ross’s origins, they might well assume that Quentin Tarantino had decided to do a picture substituting words for guns.
GGR is amazingly cruel. There isn’t a single physical act of violence in the whole film, but the people at the center of this story destroy one another by what they say. The movie is rated R for profanity. No gore. No sex. A bunch of guys in business suits in an office, in a restaurant, in a car, in some phone booths. A recent book on global corporations is called Cannibals with Forks; the salesmen of Glengarry Glen Ross have built their careers on that kind of an ethos. But where today’s fork-toting cannibals have become powerful enough to circumvent governments, Mamet’s characters suddenly find themselves at the bottom of a new, scarier food chain.
The entire cast is extraordinary. Jack Lemmon gives one of the best performances of his career as Shelley “the Machine” Levine, a real estate star in heavy decline who once made the top of the sales charts for months on end, but at the moment we meet him is floundering in debt and unable to close a deal. He’s like a magician who’s still got the moves & the spiel, who’ll still go onstage for even the most pathetic or unwilling of audiences, but whose rabbits, when they finally come out of the hat, are dead. Lemmon is spell-binding as he switches from unctuous pitches to clients, to cowed phone calls to the hospital where he can’t pay his daughter’s bills, to sycophantic appeals to his boss’s pity and greed, to arrogant office braggadocio when he thinks he’s successfully browbeaten an elderly couple into signing away their life savings. After receiving critical kudos just about everywhere, it was the biggest surprise of the 1992 Academy Awards when Jack Lemmon wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar.
He’s not the only salesman in trouble in the office of Premiere Properties. George (Alan Arkin) and Dave (Ed Harris) do a series of verbal pas de deux in which they demonstrate to their own satisfaction that what’s happening to them is everyone else’s fault. If they can’t close, it’s not because their lives have become as meaningless as the “service” they’re offering; it’s because the leads are lousy, management’s incompetent, and they should really be working in the real estate office across the street. One critic said that the dialogue in Glengarry Glen Ross works like a jazz ensemble performance, with the players coming forward, riffing, then letting others take the solos. The metaphor fits. With dialogue, however, you need two players to step forward each time.
One guy in the office isn’t a loser. Ricky Roma (Al Pacino) could sell a self-help manual to Bill Gates. He doesn’t talk to clients, he seduces them. Having no moral scruples is an asset. Working on an insecure but likeable client played by Jonathan Pryce, Roma doesn’t hesitate to exploit what he recognizes as a possible latent homosexuality. Even when Pryce’s character finally understands that he’s been shamelessly used and lied to, he’s got such a strong bond with Roma that he can’t leave without apologizing for not letting himself be exploited further: “I’ve let you down. I’m sorry. Forgive me.” Shakespeare’s Richard III would have appreciated the irony.
Ricky Roma does have one problem, though. He’s stuck in the same real estate office as Shelley, Dave, and George. And John. John Williamson (Kevin Spacey) manages the office of Premiere Properties. Younger than any of the men who work for him, the only thing he’s got going is the cold bureaucratic efficiency that’s the mark of the new order. He despises his own men because he knows they’re going down and he doesn’t want to go down with them. He is in turn despised because he’s never been a player in the game. The others live or die by their wits; John just follows orders. His pitchmen double team pigeons and tell nostalgic war stories of past scams; John files paperwork. The one chance he does get to join the game, he blows it completely and costs Roma his sale and a Cadillac bonus.
In adapting his play for the screen, David Mamet took the unusual step of creating an entirely new character for the opening scenes. Played by Alec Baldwin, this character has some of the film’s choicest dialogue. He’s a verbal hitman, sent by Head Office to ensure that the losers of Premiere Properties toe the new corporate line. He’s a cannibal with a Rolex and a really big fork. The Hannibal Lecter of laissez-faire: “We’re adding a little something to this month’s sales contest. As you all know, first prize is a Cadillac Eldorado. Anybody want to see second prize? [Holds up prize.] Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you’re fired.” When Dave asks Baldwin just who he thinks he is to be treating him like a loser, Blake tells him: “You drove a Hyundai to get here tonight. I drive an $80,000 BMW.…You see this watch? That watch costs more than your car. I made $970,000 last year. How much you make? You see, pal, that’s who I am, and you’re nothing…. I can go out there tonight with what you got and make $1500 in two hours…They’re sitting out there waiting to give you their money—are you going to take it? Are you man enough to take it? You wanna work here, close!….Don’t close, you’ll be shining my shoes….” Here’s a prophet for the new millennium. Wealth equals wisdom. What is profitable is moral. It is easier for a rich man to get into heaven than for a poor man to find a tax break. The lion shall lie down with the lamb, so that lunch will be served quicker.
A word of praise for James Newton Howard, who composed the fine, low-keyed jazz soundtrack for this film. Howard is one of those unheralded professionals on whom all directors rely. Few people outside the business would even recognize the name, yet James Howard has scored over seventy films since 1986. As they say in France, chapeau!
The cast of Glengarry Glen Ross spent weeks rehearsing Mamet’s dialogue. They honed it razor-sharp. As the massive hype over the new Star Wars film washes over us, how refreshing it is to have words, even profane ones, triumph over special effects and spectacle.
Looking Back & Second Thoughts
This is the second time in two weeks that I’ve struck out in being able to find a copy of my featured film for another viewing. I might have expected difficulties with tracking down Jacques Doillon’s Ponette, but Glengarry Glen Ross should have been a cinch. Oh well. Something to look forward to in the future.
One comment I will make is that with Glengarry Glen Ross delivery is everything. Much of the film’s dialogue is included in the Quotes section on the Imdb page for the film, but if you haven’t actually seen & heard GGR’s actors delivering their lines onscreen you’re not likely to understand what all the fuss is about. Much as I was tempted to throw in a few chunks of dialogue below, without Lemmon, Pacino, Baldwin, Harris and the rest of crew there just wouldn’t be enough blood on the floor.
Make that two comments. Composer James Newton Howard now has 165 film credits on Imdb. He has received 8 Oscar nominations. What is the Academy waiting for?