Critic's Notebook: 'Glengarry Glen Ross' at 25
Put. That coffee. Down. On this day in 1992, the big-screen adaptation of David Mamet's Pulitzer Prize-winning play hit theaters.
The year 1992 was hardly short on man-centric pictures: Testosterone-hungry moviegoers got the practically all-male crime flicks Reservoir Dogs and Trespass, as well as Unforgiven's rumination on the dark side of manly Western archetypes. Even Rob Reiner and Aaron Sorkin rounded up a few good men. But what other film came close to the collection of male thesps at the top of their game assembled in Glengarry Glen Ross?
Apart from a mute waitress or coat-check girl on the edges of the frame, there are no women here. And women might rightly be glad to escape a world this desperate and antagonistic — provided they aren't actresses looking for meaty roles, in which case they can join one of numerous gender-flipped productions of the play. (And try to decide what to do with a script that envisions women as income-draining liabilities at home and as buzzkill obstacles to deal-making in the workplace.)
According to industry reports at the time, both cast and director James Foley left, then rejoined the project during development, attracted by David Mamet's Pulitzer-winning material but worried its avalanche of expletives would keep it from reaching cinemas. Alec Baldwin, for one, might easily have skipped it. He was at his hottest as a leading man around 1992, and his one-scene-only role isn't even in the play; Mamet conceived his character for the screen adaptation. This might be the best choice Baldwin ever made: While the following years saw his star fade with abortive tentpoles (The Shadow) and forgettable thrillers, his "Coffee is for closers" monologue was becoming iconic, cementing his value as a scene-stealing supporting actor. (Without that speech, would the world have ever met Jack Donaghy?)
"Coffee is for closers." "Always Be Closing." "Third place is you're fired." Baldwin's tirade not only encapsulates the movie's view of income-as-worth capitalism, it makes the stakes of the coming 24 hours palpable. Four salesmen are about to lose their terrible jobs if they don't find people stupid enough to buy the far-away vacation properties their bosses (the never-seen "Mitch and Murray") want to unload. Their unfeeling office manager, John Williamson (Kevin Spacey, launching his 1990s lean-and-mean streak), has names and numbers of people who might actually want to buy property ("the good leads") but insists that he'll only give them to men who prove their worth by making deals with the "deadbeats" already on their call sheets.
All four men want the new leads badly, but Jack Lemmon's Shelley Levene needs them. Once a star salesman, he has endured a long cold streak — not unlike the actor himself, who never stopped working but had not had a showcase like this in years. (And arguably never had a dramatic role this good, period.) Shelley reeks of failure but will not stop trying. Listen to his buttery delivery of old-school sales pitches over the phone; count the number of ways he can ask, "What's a good time to come over?" Then watch as he tries the same shtick on Williamson, his dignity crumbling as he successively asks, then bargains, then pleads for the leads.
At the other end of the spectrum is the current sales leader, Al Pacino's Ricky Roma, a man whose engine purrs with self-assurance. Coming in the same year as Pacino's easily mocked (but Oscar-winning) showboat performance in Scent of a Woman, this is one of the most restrained performances of Pacino's late career, despite the relentlessness of Roma's seduction technique. Watch Pacino monopolize the conversation as Roma woos an unwitting rube (Jonathan Pryce) in a Chinese restaurant, and you can sniff out the attention-hog tendencies that have marred later performances. But he doesn't need to be pushy as an actor this time: Mamet's dialogue guarantees we won't stop listening to him for a second.
Later, though, comes a truly marvelous thing: The next day, when Levene has a big sale to crow about and isn't getting the praise he desires, Roma is the one who listens. Pacino lets himself melt into a chair, listens to his scene partner, and smiles with an easy warmth that represents maybe the only truly good thing in this mean, misanthropic film.
That's good as opposed to harmless: For the latter, see how much weakness, apology and shame Pryce can wring out of the few lines he speaks when his character tries to get out of the deal he's made. Or watch Alan Arkin play nervous yes man to Ed Harris's angry Dave Moss as the latter proposes they simply break into the office after it closes and steal the good leads.
Or is he really proposing that? Their "Are we just talking about doing this, or are we talking about doing this?" banter is textbook Mamet speak, and for it to stand out in a film so packed with investigations of talking, selling, lying and cajoling is quite a thing. It's also funny, which is something you might not expect from a film about men who see everyone around them solely as a way to make a dollar. It's amazing, given how despicable these guys are, how enjoyable it is to spend time with them.
Read THR's original review of Glengarry Glen Ross here.