There's a certain type of masculinity we're used to seeing on screen. John Wayne, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jason Statham: big, taciturn dudes who won't put up with any weakness in others and certainly not in themselves. They're not just muscular and powerful, though—they're heroic, saving the day and the damsel. No wonder so many men feel inadequate—who can live up to that? In real life, those sorts of chances to be brave never really materialize, so what's a man to do?
The men of Glengarry Glen Ross look nothing like Wayne, and there are no women to be rescued or evil to be vanquished. And yet, 20 years after the film adaptation of David Mamet's Pulitzer-winning play opened, it remains one of the quintessential modern movies about masculinity. And the news it has to report is nothing but bad. You'd be better off trying to emulate Schwarzenegger than these bastards.
Glengarry Glen Ross made its debut on the stage in 1982. Two years later, it was on Broadway, netting Joe Mantegna a Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Play. Mantegna played the role of Ricky Roma, the hotshot real estate salesman at the floundering Premier Properties. The film came out on Oct. 2, 1992, and while there are many fine Mamet movies, it's interesting that the best of them was this one—the one he didn't direct. Instead, that job was done by James Foley, who previously had made At Close Range and Who's That Girl. He's had a journeyman career since, but one Glengarry Glen Ross makes up for a few misfires.
For those not familiar with the film, you probably know enough about it anyway because of the widely parodied opening monologue from Alec Baldwin that sets the story in motion. (It's a scene not in the original play—Mamet wrote it for the movie.) Baldwin plays Blake, a representative of the big bosses Mitch and Murray who has come to berate the company's incompetent salesmen: over-the-hill Shelley Levene (Jack Lemmon); surly Dave Moss (Ed Harris); and mumbling, ineffectual George Aaronow (Alan Arkin). Blake lets them know that at the end of the month, the top two salesmen on the earnings board will keep their jobs—and since Roma (Al Pacino), who isn't there for the tongue-lashing, is easily ahead of the field, only one of the three salesmen in the room won't be fired.
Beyond the "A, always. B, be. C, closing" lines that have worked their way into pop culture, though, Baldwin's speech establishes the tone of the film's world, which is populated by men. In fact, women are just about never seen in this movie. Glengarry Glen Ross exists in a universe devoid of the female influence. (When women are mentioned, they're either nagging wives or good lays.) Instead, we have nothing but grown men who talk like boys in the locker room. The only things that matter are money, expensive luxuries, and sex. Struggling salesmen aren't just inept—they're debased for being weak, for not being manly enough, and (worst of all in this milieu) for being as worthless as homosexuals. Baldwin doesn't leave them with inspirational words of wisdom like "win one for the Gipper." "It's fuck or walk," he informs them.
And so what's set in motion is a character drama in which everybody on the screen is judged by their potency. No one actually pulls out his penis in Glengarry Glen Ross, but the movie is one long dick-measuring competition. There's no noble goal these men are fighting for—they just want to save their asses so they don't get canned. Amazingly, Foley's restrained direction and the actors' smooth handling of Mamet's skewed, expletive-laden dialogue keep us from being repelled by these monsters. Instead, watching Glengarry Glen Ross is like studying lab rats, which is probably how Mamet intended it since none of the characters is what you'd call sympathetic. Jonathan Pryce's nervous potential buyer and Lemmon's once-killer salesman (whose daughter is very ill) come close, but, tellingly, they're also the weakest, most desperate characters—they're pathetic, and we start judging them the way everybody else in the movie judges them.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Roma, Levene's protege who has evolved into a top-flight salesman. He's good at his job in a way that's seductive—by which I mean he seduces his (male) customers in an almost sexual manner. We watch him courting Pryce's James Lingk in a bar late at night, not unlike how you'd try to pick up a girl at last call. At one point, Roma muses about the mysteries of "middle-class morality" and announces, "You think you're queer? I'm gonna tell you something: We're all queer." This, of course, in the same conversation where he talks about pooping on two separate occasions. It's Mamet's scary twist on masculinity and ambition that portrays men as so ultra-macho that sex isn't about love but just another way of showing dominance over someone else.
The performances are all terrific, each actor offering his own take on the oppressive demands his character feels to be manly enough. Harris is all grouchy, impotent anger. Arkin makes Aaronow a shell of a person, merely repeating what those around them say in the hopes that his inadequacies won't be found out. As the nerdy, seething office manager Williamson, Kevin Spacey runs a wide emotional gamut. His character makes a terrible mistake that jeopardizes a co-worker's sale, and all that shame and self-loathing quickly turn into vindictive glee when he quickly gets the upper hand on another co-worker. It's one of Spacey's least-mannered performances, and one of his best.
That's also true of Pacino, who's simply astounding as the suave Roma. For much of the last few decades, Pacino has stopped playing characters and simply become "Pacino." (Don't forget that the same year he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for Glengarry Glen Ross, he won the Best Actor Oscar for his incredibly hammy turn in Scent of a Woman.) His work in GGR represents one of his last truly great performances, and maybe Pacino knew that Roma's smooth confidence required a dialing down of his usual antics. (That said, when Roma explodes near the end of the film, Pacino does it perfectly.)
And then there's Lemmon. The early '90s were a rich period for the actor, between this film, JFK and Short Cuts, and in each he played a doddering older man who knew that his best days were behind him but was desperately—sometimes pathetically—trying to hold on to his relevance. Despite how pathetic Shelley "The Machine" Levene comes across, sweating and pleading to get better leads or wooing customers who aren't interested at all, Lemmon makes that desperation poignant. For much of Glengarry Glen Ross, the character are obsessed with their worth, which can be measured only by physical possessions and not by any sense of personal contentment. (As Blake makes clear at the beginning, taking pride in being a good family man is just another way to delude yourself into thinking you're not a total loser.) In this heartless world, Levene is easily the most vulnerable. It's no accident that he's the oldest person on screen—Glengarry Glen Ross might as well be set in the animal kingdom where the feeble are killed off first. Even with his professional life nearing a close, there's no peace in Shelley's eyes—just endless panic.
That's why it's so perfect that next month's GGR Broadway revival will feature Pacino in the Shelley Levene role. If this terrific work is, in part, about the pitiless march of time that robs even the most manly men of their virility, then it's appropriate that the man who helped make Roma such a powerful figure 20 years ago is now set to play that character's graying, fading opposite. In this world, it's fuck or walk. And as much as we try to keep it from happening, eventually we all have to walk.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.