David Mamet’s films are a drug. I watch one and the synapses in my brain start firing, demanding only one thing: more, more, more. Genuinely, I can’t remember ever watching just one Mamet film and letting that be that. I watch one, and a week later, I’ve rewatched them all.
Upon binging Mamet’s films for the past week, I took particular notice of one of Mamet’s staple actors, the great Rebecca Pidgeon. Pidgeon and Mamet have been married since 1991 and their fruitful collaboration has produced some truly excellent work. So, for the first time in In Character (125 posts and counting!), every role I’ll be discussing was directed and/or created by the same filmmaker, which is really a testament to the work Pidgeon and Mamet have made together.
Acting is all about listening. Even in a David Mamet film, where the words are treated with senior priority, listening is key. Take, for instance, a terrific scene from Homicide. Detective Bobby Gold (Joe Mantegna) is on the phone with one of his cop buddies, verbally berating the well-to-do Jewish family he’s supposed to be protecting. An older female member of the family was killed a few days earlier, and the family now demands that Gold investigate the case. This angers Gold. He’d rather be tracking down the notorious drug dealer he’s been chasing for months. So, in a moment of frustration, Gold lashes out with a profane, anti-Semitic, and just downright nasty tirade. The fact that Gold himself is Jewish is of little concern to him.
When Gold hangs up the phone, he turns around and sees that Miss Klein, the granddaughter of the slain woman, is sitting right behind him, having heard every ugly word. Her calm yet confident retort to a stunned Gold is remarkable. Most writers would have the Miss Klein character scream to be heard, but Pidgeon’s silence is astounding. It’s the highlight of the film – an epic rant followed by an even more powerful stillness.
The Spanish Prisoner (1997)
Susan Ricci is the only person Joe Ross can trust. Due much in part to his need to be proper (which manifests itself as naïveté), Joe Ross (Campbell Scott) falls victim to an elaborate con he cannot escape from. The only person who maintains his innocence, and is actively willing to help him, is the kind woman from his office, Susan Ricci. Susan fancies Joe and hopes that when they clear his name, he’ll fancy her too.
Susan’s constant politeness is what makes her such a fun character. She’s chipper but not dumb, persistent but never annoying. She also has many of the best lines in the film – “Shows to go ya, you never know who anybody is,” “I’m a hell of a person. I’m loyal and true and I’m not too hard to look at, what do you think?” I risk writing more, in fear of exposing The Spanish Prisoner’s many hidden wonders, but know that I was this close to calling Susan Ricci Pidgeon’s finest performance. Not a false note to be found in her layered work here.
The Winslow Boy (1999)
The Winslow Boy is Mamet’s most audacious film. It’s a G-rated picture about British manners that strips itself of any actors within Mamet’s familiar troupe, save Rebecca Pidgeon, of course. Catherine Winslow is the older sister of Ronnie, a young boy who is thrown out of the Royal Naval College because he apparently stole. The shame of this alleged crime, in pre-WWI London, is enough to ruin the Winslow family, but Catherine is an unwavering supporter of her brother. She’s the type of live wire “radical” not suited for the time period, one who publicly proclaims, among other things, the right for women’s suffrage. She’s strong, independent, and fiercely determined to speak for those who have a quiet voice. A fine performance of subtle intensity.
Ahh, Fran Moore. The cold, calculating, chain smoking wife of Joe Moore (Gene Hackman), an expert thief looking to get out of the game. In an interesting turn for the heist film, Joe’s right hand man is actually his wife, who is on board for any task Joe assigns. This includes seducing the nephew of Joe’s fence, Mickey Bergman (Danny DeVito). In Joe’s eyes, if the nephew (a slimy Sam Rockwell) has his judgment clouded by Fran, then Joe can screw Mickey over. Heist is a complex game. A web spun around another web, entangled with yet another. But I love the way Pidgeon plays Fran; just when you think you have her figured out, she throws a curveball to remind the audience that we know nothing about her. It can be a look, a smile, a glance, a word. “She could talk her way out of a sunburn,” Joe says of Fran at one point. Boy, could she ever.
The Unit (2006-2009)
The Unit was the network show Mamet created with Shawn Ryan, about an elite group of career soldiers who execute classified and dangerous missions. Interestingly, the show was as much about the soldiers’ wives as it was about the soldiers themselves. And because Charlotte Ryan was married to the unit’s highest ranking officer, Thomas Ryan (Robert Patrick), there was an unspoken understanding that she had the most power among the wives. Whenever Charlotte appeared, the rest of the wives had to watch their every move, which shattered their trustful dynamic. Charlotte was troubled (her hit-and-run arc in Season 2 gave Pidgeon some of her juiciest scenes on the show), but her constant pretense of courtesy was what made her so memorable. When Charlotte walked into a room, everything changed. She would always just smile, acting like she doesn’t run shit, even though everyone knew she did.
The Best of the Best
State and Main (2000)
When a big budget Hollywood production called The Old Mill invades a quaint New England town, both parties struggle to deal with the lifestyles of the other group. One of State and Main’s greatest pleasures is the relationship between the screenwriter of The Old Mill and a book store worker from the town. The screenwriter, Joseph Turner White (Philip Seymour Hoffman), feels like he belongs in the town, whereas the bookstore worker, Annie Black (Pidgeon), feels perfectly suited to mix it up with the Hollywood crowd. Annie is definitely a small town gal, but her rat-a-tat-tat way of speaking fits right in with the production crew. The fact that she’s engaged to the town douche, the would-be politician Doug (Clark Gregg), presents a whole host of hilarious problems for Annie and Joseph, on top of what the production is already doing to both of them.
It says something rather grand of the writing and the actors involved that many of State and Main’s best scenes are nothing more than extended conversations between Annie and Joseph. Later in the film, Mamet pulls off a bit of a one-two con (how can he not?), that involves Annie’s kindness and Joseph’s morality. I won’t spoil it here, but it carries the film into a dramatic realm we didn’t know it needed. But there’s Rebecca Pidgeon, in all her effortless charm (her constant chant of “Go You Huskies!” is perfect), watching as a man she cares about struggles to do the right thing. It’s a great performance I can watch again and again, backed with a face of such strong emotion, and a vernacular second to none.
The Dawning (1988)
The Shield (2004-2005)
How to Be (2008)
The Lodger (2009)
Phil Spector (2013)
Two-Bit Waltz (2014)
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