Times are tough at the Premiere Properties real estate office in Chicago. A sales challenge comes down from the main office — the winner gets a Cadillac El Dorado, the loser gets fired. Back-biting, in-fighting and crossed loyalties explode in the most incendiary dialog Mamet has ever offered.
It’ll finish Monday,
AFTER THOUGHT from June 30,2014
I have gotten significantly off track with the original purpose of this blog in the past coupla years. What started with articles about movies that I love, with an emphasis on the movies that I used to show in the conference room at my old talent agency job in the mid-2000’s, has become co-opted by longer pieces on this site and shorter blurbs on social media. Time to get back to basics: an open conversation between you & I about a single film that I love, and hopefully that you either love, or that I can at least convince you is worth your time.
GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS was one of the recurring classics of the ol’ Lunch Movie days. Aside from this 2007 blurb above when we showed it on DVD in ICM, I showed it on DVD as well as VHS on my previous agency job at BKWU / BWCS, which merged with ICM in 2006. The parallels between this film and the talent agency business might be lost on the casual movie fan, but to those agent assistants, temp pool floaters, and other administrative pals who often joined me at lunch, there was a compelling similarity.
Adapted by David Mamet from his pressure cooker of a stage play, this film focuses on an office of real estate salesmen who specialize in barely legal semi-swindles. Though it was shot and edited with precision and style, and written with Mamet’s trademark gusto, this is an actor’s movie. This story lives or dies on its performances. Jack Lemmon as poor old Shelley “the Machine” Levene is the sort of keep-your-head-down-do-your-best-hope-The-Powers-That-Be-grace-you-with-their-notice fellow who has been a staple of salary-man stories since Arthur Miller‘s DEATH OF A SALESMAN and Rod Serling‘s Kraft Television Theatre classic PATTERNS. Al Pacino’s Ricky Roma is the sort of unreachable master of puppets that the movies hadn’t seen since Paul Newman as Frank Gallagher. Alec Baldwin threatens to steal the entire film with the most riveting monologue since George C. Scott in PATTON.
That Baldwin’s single scene probably rivals Gordon Gecko‘s business philosophy for quotability amongst Ivy League MBAs in the past generation speaks to the lasting impact of this film. We could argue that GLENGARRY created this Princes Of The Universe legion of greedy bloodsucking @$$holes in the halls of corporate power, or we could acknowledge that they were created by legal permissions, and this film merely galvanized them and made them easier for the rest of us to spot. Ed Harris, Adam Arkin, and Kevin Spacey play the sort of characters who embody truisms that predate 1980’s yuppie Successory posters: “There are no second acts in American lives” and “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.”
So what does real estate have to do with the talent agency business? The administrative staff folks who used to spend their sunny Beverly Hills lunch hour with me in a dark conference room all understood the lives of the Premiere Properties gents to be a cautionary tale for their own chosen vocation. In Baldwin’s opening monologue, he makes it quite clear that Lemmon, Pacino, and company work in a satellite office, and thus not as valuable to the company or generally cool as the boys in the downtown office. Pacino’s Ricky Roma may be the big fish, but he’s in a small pond. These middle-aged and older men are pitted against each other for their jobs. My admin compadres all had the dream of being an agent, a showrunner, a development exec, or God forbid a few even had their own stories to tell and aspired to writing and/or directing. But how do they get there? The same way the salesman in Premiere Properties do: work hard, work smart, keep your friends close and your enemies closer, never say die, or some wannabe Lombardi-ism to that effect. The guys in the film hope to earn “the Glengarry leads,” sales leads that Baldwin dangles in front of them like the carrot before the whip, leads that are likely a ticket to a job in the downtown office. The folks in my office were either floaters hoping to get hired onto an agent’s desk, or agent assistants hoping to get hired onto a partner’s desk, or partner’s assistants hoping to become Coordinator during the next TV staffing season.
“I used to be a salesman, it’s a tough racket,” Baldwin berates the crew, right before miming a shot to drown his sorrows. Many of my coworkers went on to bigger and better things. Just as many gave up and moved back to whatever town they had moved from a few years earlier. One such agent assistant had worked previously selling used cars and in a similar real estate office; he promised me that the parallels were no great leap. That guy in particular was cut out perfectly for this work, and is doing quite well these days. I’ve seen hard asses give up and decent folks hang in and thrive, and vice versa, which also speaks to what makes GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS special: everyone has surprises in them. Each respond unexpectedly when truly challenged.
This is not a film with a lot of time for backstory, which is what makes it such a perfect actors’ film. The cast are called upon to flesh their characters out via the subtlety of mannerism and inflection to show us when they are in control versus when they are desperate versus when they are manipulating the game. An aspect of this film that has always fascinated me is that, while audiences have loved or hated it, they all seem to agree what it is. The backstory of these characters may be open to interpretation, but the rest of it is pretty damn cut and dry. Some people are repulsed by these characters, others are fascinated. It is my theory that anyone who has ever worked a year trying to sell something, whether it be million dollar homes to those aforementioned Princes of the Universes or t-shirts to tourists, will grasp what makes GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS resonate. Your job is to try to create a need in a person who may have been only wanting, or merely curious, at the moment you met them. It is that unique quality of confidence coupled with a defect of manipulation that makes these characters and this story compelling.
Now get back to work!!