The Winner Takes It All
Adam Nayman on Glengarry Glen Ross
The plot of Glengarry Glen Ross hinges on a competition: the employees at a branch office of the shady NYC real estate firm Premiere Properties pitted against one another by their parent company in an act of pure, Darwinian capitalism. It’s survival of the fittest amongst a paddling of lame ducks. After outlining the incentives for the victor and the runner-up—a Cadillac El Dorado and a set of steak knives, respectively—bespoke honcho Blake (Alec Baldwin), having driven his BMW all the way “from downtown...from Mitch and Murray...on a mission of mercy” clarifies the stakes of this month’s sales contest even further. “Third prize is you’re fired,” he says, flatly. There are four men on the sales team.
In this winner-take-all context—and in light of the film’s awesome ensemble cast, drawn together by director James Foley on a modest budget by the promise of more ephemeral, award-season capital—Glengarry Glen Ross begs to be read between the lines as a kind of thespian Olympiad, a veritable acting decathlon permitting the flexing of all kinds of muscles. For his cheek-bulging performance as the decrepit, downward-trending veteran Shelley “The Machine” Levene—a liked-but-not-well-liked type whose anguished presence surely inspired the nicknaming of David Mamet’s 1984 Pulitzer Prize–winning source play as “Death of a Fucking Salesman”—Jack Lemmon copped the Volpi Cup at Venice, as well as a Best Actor citation from the National Board of Review. As the more dynamic (and Cadillac-bound) verbal seducer Richard Roma, Al Pacino scored the movie’s only Oscar nomination, for Best Supporting Actor (he lost to Gene Hackman in Unforgiven). Cases can be made for others up and down the call sheet (including a never-wormier Kevin Spacey), but it’s Baldwin’s ferocious one-scene cameo—famously whipped up by Mamet for the film adaptation and written specifically for Baldwin as a favor for a friend—that takes the gold. Or perhaps the brass; towards the end of his harangue, Blake produces a pair of metallic orbs from his briefcase, suggestively held at waist level as a combination status symbol-cum-strap-on. No time for losers, ’cause he is the champion.
Actually, Baldwin’s seven-minute scene is filled with all kinds of prop comedy; beyond more directly diagramming the plight of Premiere’s sad-sack journeymen—and also the vengeful scheme hatched by Ed Harris’s cynical lifer Moss to rob the office and resell a valuable packet of customer “leads” to a local independent competitor—Glengarry’s movie-only prologue injects a slapstick dynamism into the material. Those steak knives get held up right on cue, like showcase items on The Price Is Right, while the contemptuous didacticism of Blake’s “mission of mercy” is underlined by his use of an elementary-school style blackboard to infantilize his middle-aged subordinates—i.e., the Sesame Street–style acronym “Always Be Closing” that has become the most enduring slogan of a self-consciously quotable film.
It’s impossible to overstate the effect that the Blake scene had on Glengarry Glen Ross’ pop-cultural staying power, whether in terms of its influence on other films—like 2000’s junior-varsity remake Boiler Room, with an unconvincingly vicious Ben Affleck in the Baldwin role—or a litany of parodies, including a 2005 Saturday Night Live sketch with Baldwin-as-Santa berating a group of elves. On 30 Rock, the well-coiffed neocon network boss Jack Donaghy evoked a host of real-world and fictional tyrants, with a few explicit references to Baldwin’s onscreen history as a monologist (“I once declared ‘I am God’ during a deposition,” he recalls, honoring Malice), but the baseline conceit of the actor as a ruthless authority figure—recapitulated by Wayne Kramer in The Cooler, Martin Scorsese in The Aviator and The Departed, and whatever insidious algorithm is responsible for The Boss Baby franchise—derives from Blake and those brass balls, and how they wordlessly externalize their owner’s tumescent cockiness.
Even by Mamet’s famously profane standards, Glengarry Glen Ross is awash in proto-Trumpian locker room talk; in the absence of any significant female characters—notwithstanding multiple and suggestive references to absent wives and girlfriends and tragically incapacitated daughters—these exchanges take the form of verbal roshambo with characters consistently lashing out and smacking each other below the belt. “Guy couldn’t find his own dick with two hands and a map” is Moss’s priceless assessment of the cop whose arrival halfway through the movie—at the beginning of the play’s daytime second act, set on the morning immediately after its dark-night-of-the-soul setup—introduces a different form of authority figure into Premiere’s top-down ecosystem. (The solution to the whodunit is of little actual importance to the story). The naughtiest potty mouth of all belongs to Roma, whose endlessly inventive variations on playground juvenilia (“I don’t care whose nephew you are, whose dick you’re sucking on”) belie—or, perhaps, underline—his shrewdly sexualized professional rhetoric. While Shelley, Moss, and George (Alan Arkin) are sitting through Blake’s accusatory “sales conference,” Roma is in a Chinese restaurant bar laying his best lines on lonely, wretched James Lingk (Jonathan Pryce), a married man who mentions his wife compulsively but nevertheless gives the impression of discreet, insecure cruising. If Roma’s absence from the lecture next door suggests he’s past such Pavlovian motivational tactics (and as high man on the Premiere board, he may be), his almost phenomenological recollections to Lingk about “the great fucks” he’s had clinches the link between himself and Blake’s phallic demonstrational tools: “My balls,” he narrates in flashback, “feel like concrete.”
The Roma-Lingk relationship has been interpreted within Glengarry Glen Ross’ clammily masculine schema as an opportunistic, predatory seduction. “You think we’re queer? Let me tell you something, we’re all queer,” purrs Pacino coolly, not-so-apropos of nothing; Lingk’s after-the-fact attempts at reneging on the deal—showing up at the office, eyes down, stammering apologies—are shaded by what feels like lover’s guilt. (While we’re handing out medals for acting in Glengarry, we should try to save a spot on the podium for Pryce, who gives a master class in slumped submissiveness, disappearing into his supporting part as surely as his co-stars wield their established and potent personas). Power—and the ways it gets expressed, complicated, and sublimated through language and inflection—has always been Mamet’s great theme, dating back to 1987’s House of Games and its loquacious card sharps (that film’s star, Joe Mantegna, played Roma on stage). In follow-ups like The Edge and Redbelt, Mamet began integrating actual physical conflict—bear-hunting and MMA fighting, respectively—without sacrificing his trademark argot. Glengarry’s bruised dramaturgy is divided between characters like Blake and Roma, with their alpha-male vocabularies, talking victory laps around their opponents, and hapless stammerers like Lingk and George, who simply aren’t equipped to do battle.
It’s George who gets dominated in the script’s most brilliantly written scene, centering on a thought experiment that gets stealthily redeveloped into an ultimatum. Here, Mamet the cunning linguist limns the difference between “speaking” and “talking” (“we’re just speaking about it;” “we’re not actually talking about it?”) while threading George’s unsubtle anxieties about completion (“I can’t push through”) with the sort of economic and intellectual insecurities that would let him get bullied incrementally into becoming his colleague’s accomplice. “Because you listened,” Moss chides George when asked why he’d try to turn him into an accessory, italicizing the perils in Mamet’s universe of providing a sympathetic ear. If Moss is the character most humiliated by Blake’s dick-measuring tirade (“See this watch? This watch cost more than your car”), he’s also the one who internalizes and regurgitates the same language of intimidation, which works well with a mousy opponent like George, but betrays a certain lack of mastery when clashing the next day with Blake’s double (and downtown heir apparent), Roma.
The perpetually cash-strapped, self-deluding Shelley is Glengarry Glen Ross’ designated neuter: his arc concludes with getting his balls cut off in front of the whole office. Mamet is good about acknowledging this particular character’s debt to Arthur Miller (right down to the slant rhyme between “Shelley” and “Willy,” as in Loman), but he and Lemmon (and Foley) manage to contrive a new and compelling loser archetype out of their borrowings. For instance, the downcast huckster Gil on The Simpsons is voiced and animated in homage to Lemmon rather than Dustin Hoffman or any other celebrity Willy Lomans. Lemmon’s primary duet partner in the film is Spacey, and their showcase back-and-forth, in which Shelley tries to bribe Spacey’s Williamson—the office manager, and a cold fish—into releasing the premium leads plays on the generational theme previously drawn out by having young buck Baldwin bad-mouthing so many hallowed, middle-age-and-older actors. (Foley consistently shoots Spacey lurking in the background of Baldwin’s close-ups, a stoic henchman in repose.)
Shelley’s primary, needling point of contention with Williamson is that the younger man lacks experience, which proves true in the devastating (and hilarious) moment when Williamson accidentally demolishes Roma’s cover story for his fleecing of Lingk but doesn’t offset his own tragic flaw: a misprized belief in his old-school status. Blake’s curt order to Shelley during their lone interaction to “put that coffee down...coffee is for closers” is seemingly rebutted by Shelley closing an $80,000 sale with a reluctant couple, and yet, in Mamet’s cruelest twist, closure proves irrelevant when the clients’ cheque is destined to bounce. “They’re insane,” Williamson smirks, twisting the (steak) knife once and for all, luxuriating in a final act of verbal castration. “They just like talking to salesmen.”
The not-so-buried subtext of Glengarry Glen Ross is that, for all their ritualized rancor, these salesmen like talking to one another; we get that these are arguments they’ve had before. Not that they have much choice for companionship, as their very particularized form of alienated labor has rendered normal human relationships almost impossible. (One wonderful detail I always come back to: when Shelley artificially inflates his position during phone calls by interjecting orders to his [non-existent] secretary, her name is “Grace,” rather pathetically indicating a quality he lacks). The evident formalist glee that Mamet takes in articulating their hostilities keeps his play—and the movie made from it—from reducing to a simplistic late-capitalist analysis, or even a critique; like his hero and sometimes collaborator Harold Pinter, he’s even more interested in syntax than morality, and even before his post–9/11 slide into strutting wingnuttery, he toggled brazenly between ignoring and outright belittling political correctness. (One notable change between the movie and the play is the omission of several ostentatious, anti-Indian tirades, drawn from the author’s observation of industry racism during his year-long immersion in a Chicago real-estate office; their insidious sentiment is conveyed simply in the movie through Pacino’s incredulous pronunciation of the surname “Patel” as a catch-all for the deadbeat leads he and his co-workers refuse to chase any further.)
Death of a Salesman is, of course, a no-dry-eye-in-the-house tragedy; Glengarry Glen Ross is more like an anthropological inquiry, closer in some ways to the Maysles’ pavement-pounding 1969 vérité Salesman in that its true protagonist is a milieu, or a discipline. And, like the Maysles—albeit in a very different way—Mamet withholds judgment on said milieu and its participants, or at least refuses to impose it from above. Which is why, for all its pyrotechnical excitement, the Blake scene arguably weakens—or overpowers—the script as a whole.
Blake’s speech seeks to take the free-floating, multidirectional, profit-motivated animosity circulating around a complex spectrum of characters and corporealize it into a single, demonic figure (the name “Blake” surely alludes to an even more seminal writer than Arthur Miller, as well as one with unlimited sympathy for the devil). Baldwin’s brilliance is white-hot, but it’s in the service of dialogue with a one-to-one ratio of intent and expression. He says what he means, and it’s ultimately as pithy as an editorial cartoon. Which may be why the heavy-metal sight gag of what Baldwin’s packing in his briefcase is simultaneously so graphically perfect and so prosaically obvious. Blake isn’t telling the boys anything they don’t already know. What’s revelatory—and arousing and/or deflating—is how openly his long-since-achieved success deputizes him to stroke his own ego via a carefully chosen fetish object. Call it a dick move, then, and whether those brass balls are genuinely essential to Glengarry Glen Ross or just baubles amidst its embarrassment of riches, they aren’t easily forgotten.