Sunday, March 25, 2012

Glengarry Glen Ross: An Actor’s Breakdown

Throughout The Week of Mamet, I’ve realized that while many people may not be incredibly familiar with Mamet’s work, most have seen (and loved) Glengarry Glen Ross, James Foley’s 1992 film, the screenplay of which Mamet adapted from his 1984 Pulitzer Prize-winning stage play.

Glengarry Glen Ross has come up several times over the past week, usually in relation to its flawless, how-the-fuck-was-this-not-nominated-for-an-Oscar script, but also because of the remarkable performances it contains.

For the Mamet Awards, I said Al Pacino delivered the best performance of the bunch. Having just finished my latest showing not but five minutes ago, I found that I was most drawn to Ed Harris’ desperation. So for this post, I'm going to discuss the six most featured actors – their best scenes and their best single line deliveries.

I’ve had a blast dedicating And So it Begins to Mamet for the past week, and there have been several inquisitions as to if (and/or when) I’ll do another week-long marathon for one specific director. All’s I can say is: ask and you shall receive, you wondrous lot of inglorious bastards.

Alec Baldwin, as Blake
Best Scene: Well, shit, Baldwin’s best scene is THE scene, isn’t it? Brought in to shake up the “worthless pieces of shit” that are of the employ of the film’s dodgy real estate office, Blake is a tell-it-like-it-is prick who seems more concerned with humiliating the employees than encouraging them. Why? Because he’s been in the real estate business for 15 years, and his watch is worth more than your car. His single scene in the film represents as searing a delivery of dialogue as you’re likely to find. A five minute tour de force.

Best Quote: “’FUCK YOU’ that’s my name. You know why, mister? ‘Cuz you drove a Hyundai to get here tonight, I drove an $80,000 BMW, THAT’S my name.”

Alan Arkin, as George
Best Scene: Yes, I love when Arkin’s George gets a little fire in him after being interrogated by the police, but take particular notice of Arkin’s interaction with Ed Harris in a donut shop. The scene lasts for three minutes and Arkin fails to mumble out anything more than an occasional “Yeah,” “Huh,” “Hmm.” He agrees with everything Harris says (the jumpy editing that cuts to whoever is speaking adds to the scene’s effectiveness). George is a pathetic, complacent shelob, and Arkin plays him to perfection.

Best Quote: “Where does he get off, talkin’ that way to a workin’ man?!”

Ed Harris, as Dave Moss
Best Scene: As Arkin and Harris’ epic exchange (which has so far taken us from their office to Moss’ car to a customer’s house to Moss’ car to a donut shop to Moss’ car) finally comes to a close at the local bar, Moss relents what he’s been driving at: he and George steal their office’s new leads and sell them to a competitor across the street. They split the profit 50/50, and go about their business. But as the conversation evolves (and no one makes a conversation evolve like David Mamet) we realize that Moss isn’t even going to be involved in the theft. Instead, he threatens George to boost the leads, and if George doesn’t then Moss will rat George out… for something he hasn’t even done. It’s a vicious exchange of rat-a-tat-tat, the entire time of which, we’re wondering, “Why George?” Why:

Best Quote: “Because you listened.”

Al Pacino, as Ricky Roma
Best Scene: So many to chose from, but for me, I love watching Pacino’s slicker than hell Ricky Roma go into a panicked frenzy when Jonathan Pryce’s James Lingk shows up to the office unannounced. Roma has literal seconds to foil up a plan with Jack Lemmon (in which Lemmon is to play a client of Roma’s, thereby distracting Lingk from whatever the hell he is there for). Lingk, as it turns out, must cancel the very profitable transaction he had with Roma the night before. And just watch Al Pacino here, doing his thing, spinning game the way very very few actors can. The debate the two have over what is strictly defined as “three business days” is priceless in its desperation.

Best Quote: “You wanna learn the first rule, you’d know if you ever spent a day in your life: You never open your mouth, ‘til you know what the shot is. You fuckin’ child.”

Jack Lemmon, as Shelley “The Machine” Levene
Best Scene: Glengarry Glen Ross is full of lacerating moments in which its characters are forced to deal with situations they didn’t anticipate. None, it must be said, is more difficult to watch than Kevin Spacey’s puny manager catching Lemmon’s seasoned vet in a lie, a lie that will certainly cost Levene serious time in prison. And, in four short minutes, Lemmon seamlessly goes through every step of the grieving process: denying his guilt, getting angry with Spacey’s wit, bargaining with money for his life, finding himself depressed by what is to come, and ultimately accepting his fate by simply slouching over in his office chair. The fact that this performance did not merit an Oscar nomination is beyond shameful.

Best Quote: “Now listen to me you put me on that fuckin’ board and I want three promising leads for today and I don’t want any bullshit about ‘em and I want ‘em close together because I am gonna close them all. And that’s all I have to say to you.”

Kevin Spacey, as John Williamson
Best Scene: Lemmon’s best scene captures Spacey’s best moment in the film as well, but for a completely different reason. Once Williamson catches Levene in a lie, he lets the old man talk it out. He lets Levene offer him money and beg and plead for mercy. He even lets Levene throw his daughter’s illness in his face as a final Hail Mary attempt at pity. Why? In my opinion, to fuck with him. Williamson has no intention of letting Levene get away with what he’s done, but he lets the poor bastard keep on talking just for the hell of it. Keep in mind that, in 1992, Kevin Spacey was a nobody in the film business, and to have this much power over one of the most talented actors of all time (who was Spacey’s mentor, by the way), is quite an accomplishment.

Best Quote: “Will. You. Go. To. Lunch?!”

The Week of Mamet:
Monday March 19

Thursday March 22

Friday March 23
The Mamet Awards


  1. I saw this movie for the first time last month and I loved every single moment, every actor got a true chance to shine and it was just an inredible film. It's really hard to even pick the best one because each and every one of them was so good. I think I loved Pacino and Harris the most because in every scene they had they just infused the screen with so much energy. Great post, Alex!

  2. I need to see this film again. Like, right NOW. Pretty sure I gave it 10/10 the first time I saw it.

  3. Definitely a film to see what great acting is. Everyone in that film shows all the viewers and future actors exactly how it's done.

    It's required viewing.

  4. @Sati. Thanks! And I completely agree with everything you said - Pacino and Harris steal the show for me. But, really, they all do. Perfection all around.

  5. @Tyler I can watch it over and over. Such layered storytelling.

  6. @thevoid99 Couldn't agree more. This is the shit they should show in acting classes (and screenwriting, for that matter).

  7. Ugh, it's been too long since I last saw it. (Over two years!) Really need to watch it again.

  8. @MovieNut14 I promise... it'll be as good (but probably better) than you remember.

  9. Ok, so I admit: I hadn't heard of Mamet before you started posting about him (*ducks down, waiting for the eggs*), but this movie sounds very good, I will watch for sure soon, thanks! Great post!

  10. @Diana Haha no worries! Glengarry is an excellent introduction into the world of Mamet. Have at it!

  11. Great post what an a amazing cast, need to watch this film again.

    1. Thanks man! I love revisiting this flick. So much bile being thrown around here.