“The great fucks that you may have had,” a real-estate salesman muses in front of a potential client in David Mamet’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Glengarry Glen Ross. “What do you remember about them? For me, I’m saying, what it is, it’s probably not the orgasm. Some broad’s forearm on your neck. Something her eyes did. There was a sound she made. Or, me, lying in the, I’ll tell you: Me lying in bed, the next day, she brought me café au lait. She gives me a cigarette, my balls feel like concrete. Eh?”
What’s curious about this reflection is that it’s an evocative description not just of how human interaction works in relation to sex, but how it works in relation to movies. That’s a dead-on description of, say, a Wong Kar-wai picture. Sensual. Ephemeral. Yet it doesn’t even remotely apply to Mamet’s own films, which function more like intricately designed mazes than a collection of fleeting, talismanic images. Mamet’s screenplays are constructed, with each line, action, and scene leading methodically to the next. And his fealty to the intricacies of narrative, combined with his disdain for conventional psychology, make him a unique figure in the landscape of American cinema. Like him or not, there’s nobody else out there doing what he does, even though he’s written books (On Directing Film, True And False: Heresy And Common Sense For The Actor) detailing his singular approach.
It’s been a peculiar career. For most of the three decades since he crossed over from his initial success in the theater, Mamet has bounced back and forth between adapting his own plays (usually word-for-word), writing and directing wholly original works for the screen, and serving as a gun for hire on Hollywood projects. He’s worked steadily, despite never having had a sizable hit (apart from The Untouchables, directed by Brian De Palma). Two of his early pictures, House Of Games and Homicide, have been given the imprimatur of the Criterion Collection, but neither qualifies as a career-defining, culturally significant movie—Mamet doesn’t really have one of those. (By contrast: Pulp Fiction is the Quentin Tarantino film, Do The Right Thing is the Spike Lee film, etc.) He doesn’t belong to a school. He’s just quietly, doggedly amassed a remarkable body of work—one of the most cohesive and consistent of the last few decades, and arguably the one least beholden to fashion’s prevailing winds. To put it into Mamet-speak: He does his thing. What is that thing? (Note: All credits below are for screenwriting unless otherwise noted.)
|3.0||The Postman Always Rings Twice||1981|
Already a major name in the theater world, Mamet was handed an ostensibly plum assignment for his first screenwriting gig: a remake of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, starring Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange as the ill-fated adulterous lovers. Bob Rafelson, who at that point was four-for-four (Head, Five Easy Pieces, The King Of Marvin Gardens, Stay Hungry), directed, and the film premièred out of competition at the 1981 Cannes Film Festival, where critics promptly savaged it. Welcome to Hollywood, Dave! Attempting to reinterpret an established classic (the 1946 version starred John Garfield and Lana Turner) always amounts to donning a “KICK ME” sign, but the 1981 Postman looks considerably better today, though the inexplicable damp squib of an ending still hampers it. Whether Mamet was forced to make that particular deviation from Cain’s novel or devised it on his own doesn’t seem to be a matter of public record. Certainly, he didn’t yet feel free to indulge his signature dialogue rhythms. Instead, he provided Nicholson and Lange with terse but basically naturalistic lines that are mostly straight from the source. (Filed away for future reference: Cain’s devious ploy in which a lawyer, knowing a witness feels compelled to tell the damaging truth, arranges for a confession to be delivered to a confederate, in order to get it out of the do-gooder’s system. Mamet reconfigured that idea, played for comedy, as the third-act climax of State And Main two decades later.)
Postman’s failure was a potential career-wrecker, but Mamet rebounded quickly with his screenplay for Sidney Lumet’s The Verdict, starring Paul Newman as a washed-up attorney seeking redemption via a medical-malpractice suit. According to William Goldman, who recounted the story in Adventures In The Screen Trade, Mamet’s original draft (adapted from a novel by Barry Reed) was rejected by producer Richard D. Zanuck because it didn’t bother to include the verdict, such was its emphasis on the protagonist at the expense of the big case. Eventually rehired, Mamet wound up taking the script a bit too far in the opposite direction, making it more effective as a Perry Mason-style courtroom drama than as a character study. Newman’s Frank Galvin is revealed as a beaten-down victim rather than as a genuinely flawed man, eager to do good and impervious to temptation. Still, it’s a compelling yarn, and even though Mamet’s voice hadn’t yet fully emerged, that changed as soon as he had the chance to write something from scratch.
While 1986 saw the release of About Last Night…, a barely recognizable adaptation (not written by Mamet) of his foulmouthed play Sexual Perversity In Chicago, the chance at an original movie finally came a year later with The Untouchables—the first Mamet-written movie any fan could pick out of a lineup without hesitation, even without his name on it. “A man stands alone at the plate. This is the time for what? For individual achievement. There he stands alone. But in the field, what? Part. Of. A. Team.” Not all of the characters get as thoroughly Mametized as Robert De Niro’s Al Capone, but his repetitive, staccato voice can also be heard loud and clear in Sean Connery’s Malone, Kevin Costner’s Eliot Ness, and even in the deliberately square marital scenes between Ness and his wife (Patricia Clarkson). De Palma concocted the movie’s most memorable setpiece on his own—the Potemkin homage at the Chicago train station was a hasty replacement for a sequence set on the train, which the production couldn’t afford to shoot—but The Untouchables is the rare De Palma film in which such interludes of pure cinema don’t feel awkwardly grafted onto patent nonsense. It’s even genuinely sad when people get killed.
|4.5||House Of Games (also dir.)||1987|
|3.0||Things Change (also dir.)||1988|
|1.5||We’re No Angels||1989|
|4.5||Homicide (also dir.)||1991|
|4.5||Glengarry Glen Ross||1992|
|2.0||Oleanna (also dir.)||1994|
Mamet would continue to occasionally write scripts for other directors over the years. Neil Jordan helmed a dismal, Mamet-scripted remake of the 1955 comedy We’re No Angels—featuring the most egregious mugging of both Robert De Niro’s and Sean Penn’s career—and Danny De Vito attempted to bring some visual panache to Hoffa, an intelligent but turgid biopic starring Jack Nicholson as the doomed Teamster boss. But it was Mamet’s directorial debut, House Of Games, that truly put him on the map. The elegant yet weirdly stilted tale of a best-selling self-help author (Lindsay Crouse, then Mamet’s wife) who gets involved with a group of con men, it revels in self-conscious deception, showing the audience (and the protagonist) how various tricks work even as it uses those tricks to disguise other, more pernicious tricks. It also introduced the world to many of Mamet’s cronies—Joe Mantegna, William H. Macy, Ricky Jay—and takes giddy pleasure in their mutual use of language as a weapon. (“Where am I from? I’m from the United States Of Kiss My Ass. My marker’s good.” Among many other examples, Deadwood doesn’t exist without Mamet.) Crouse takes her husband’s aversion to emoting too far, sometimes appearing robotic, and viewers familiar with the long con may guess where the labyrinthine narrative is headed. But few debut films have been so immediately distinctive, creating a hermetic universe that could derive from no other artist. An important new director had arrived.
As if to demonstrate his range, Mamet quickly made Things Change, a gentle fable co-written with Shel Silverstein, in which an elderly shoeshine man (Don Ameche) agrees to pose as a mafia kingpin and serve his three-year prison term. Mostly, this sophomore directorial effort demonstrated that gentle fables are not Mamet’s forte, though he does engineer a pleasurable rapport between Ameche, who had won an Oscar for Cocoon a few years earlier, and Mantegna, playing a low-level mob handler treating his assignment to one last hurrah at Lake Tahoe. But it was exciting to see him attempt something so different from House Of Games, and the one-two punch made it clear that Mamet was in it for the long haul.
Homicide sealed the deal. Inarguably Mamet’s most deeply personal film, it follows homicide detective Bobby Gold (Mantegna again, in his last performance for Mamet to date) down the rabbit hole that opens up when a Jewish shopkeeper is killed and Gold gets stuck with the rinky-dink case, only to find himself confronting his longstanding apathy toward his Jewish heritage. It’s a classic Mamet bait-and-switch, initially looking for all the world like it’s going to be a fairly standard cops-and-robbers saga (with Macy chewing the screen as Mantegna’s irascible partner), then veering in an entirely unexpected direction—and into an area that precious few movies have dared explore. It was also the first of Mamet’s films to feature Rebecca Pidgeon, who would soon become (and remains) his wife and appear in nearly every film he’s directed since.
The exception, oddly enough, was Oleanna, Mamet’s fourth and weakest picture as a director. Pidgeon had originated the role of Carol, a college student who accuses her professor of sexual harassment, off-Broadway, opposite Macy. But while Mamet cast Macy in the movie version, he for some reason replaced Pidgeon (who was superb onstage) with the equally little-known Debra Eisenstadt. It wouldn’t have mattered, frankly; Oleanna is a fascinating play, but it’s designed expressly for the stage. In particular, it requires an intermission, because the work’s entire effect depends on the massive disjunction between what happens in act one and how those events are subsequently reinterpreted by Carol in act two. (Mamet, who also directed the off-Broadway production, could be seen lurking in the lobby during previews, eavesdropping on the audience’s confusion during the intermission—if you don’t know in advance what the play is about, you couldn’t possibly guess at that point—and smirking to himself.) Macy and Eisenstadt do their best, but Oleanna simply shouldn’t have been a movie. That’s a lesson Mamet appears to have finally learned, as he’s made no effort to adapt any of his recent plays.
Likewise, Michael Corrente, who directed a film version of American Buffalo starring Dustin Hoffman, Dennis Franz, and Sean Nelson, couldn’t transcend the source material’s blatant theatricality—in part because Mamet’s “adaptation” of the play consisted of retyping it verbatim into screenplay format. But there’s an exception to every rule, and James Foley somehow made a genuine motion picture out of Mamet’s most famous stage work, Glengarry Glen Ross. The cast alone is extraordinary: Al Pacino as Roma, Jack Lemmon as Levene, Ed Harris as Moss, Alan Arkin as Aaronow, Kevin Spacey (barely known at the time) as Williamson, and Jonathan Pryce as Mr. Lingk. But American Buffalo’s cast was strong, too. The difference here is that Mamet rethought the material for the screen, combining what had originally been three completely isolated scenes and adding a bunch of new material—most notably a brilliantly hostile tirade by special guest star Alec Baldwin, playing a role that doesn’t exist in the play. (Well, it didn’t originally. It’s now often added, as audiences now expect it.) And Foley, though little regarded as a stylist today, finds a multitude of visual correlatives to Mamet’s language, employing ping-pong editing rhythms to emphasize Moss and Aaronow’s Mutt and Jeff routine while increasingly isolating poor desperate Shelley Levene in the frame. It’s a bravura translation of a great American play about rapacious capitalism, hyper-masculinity, and the corrosive symbiotic relationship between the two.
|3.5||The Spanish Prisoner (also dir.)||1997|
|3.5||Wag The Dog||1997|
|4.0||The Winslow Boy (also dir.)||1999|
|5.0||State And Main (also dir.)||2000|
|3.5||Heist (also dir.)||2001|
By 1997, a decade after House Of Games, Mamet was beginning to relax into his second career. He even felt comfortable repeating himself a bit: The Spanish Prisoner, in which Campbell Scott plays the inventor of a McGuffin-esque formula (dubbed “The Process”) who’s surrounded by untrustworthy friends (Pidgeon, Steve Martin, Felicity Huffman, Ben Gazzara), is more or less Games Redux—another elaborate long con. It’s immensely pleasurable in the unfolding, but rings slightly hollow in the memory; by rights, the film should have created a boom market for Steve Martin, Dramatic Actor, as he’s superbly reptilian in the role of a fickle millionaire, but that renaissance never happened. The same year, Mamet was Oscar-nominated for writing the Hollywood satire Wag The Dog— alongside Hilary Henkin, though director Barry Levinson insisted that the shooting script was entirely Mamet’s work. Nobody seems to deny that it was Mamet who created Dustin Hoffman’s character, the Robert Evans-like producer Stanley Motss, who, in a reverse-Argo flourish, gets called in to create a fake war that will distract voters from the president’s sex scandal. And in general, the movie reflects Mamet’s sensibility, albeit not as much as his third 1997 movie, The Edge, which pits book-learned Anthony Hopkins against a murderous Alec Baldwin in the Alaskan wilderness. Testosterone flows freely in this mano a mano struggle (directed by Lee Tamahori), though Mamet typically gives the edge to the gifted autodidact, emphasizing that practice is merely an extension of solid theory.
Other for-hire jobs followed, including a reportedly extensive rewrite of J.D. Zeik’s script for John Frankenheimer’s Ronin (for which Mamet was credited as “Richard Weisz”) and an early pass on Hannibal, which was then extensively rewritten by Steven Zaillian. But it’s hard to know when he found the time to do that work, as his next three “written and directed by” efforts arrived lickety-split in three consecutive years. The most unexpected, and most improbably delightful, was a faithful adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s 1946 play The Winslow Boy, about a child whose family rallies around him when he’s wrongly accused of stealing from a fellow student at his military academy. Because Mamet is such a distinctive writer, his image-making abilities tend to be politely dismissed, but he demonstrates an understated precision in this film that’s every bit as dazzling, in its own quiet way, as any amount of visual pyrotechnics. Each shot is held for precisely the right length; each angle relates ideally to those that precede and follow it. And the cast, which includes Nigel Hawthorne and Jeremy Northam in addition to Pidgeon, succeeds in making these resolutely old-fashioned characters impassioned in their fastidiousness—an apparent incongruity that’s surprisingly moving.
As if that weren’t disorienting enough, Mamet then turned around and made the closest thing to a classic screwball comedy in recent memory. Because State And Main involves a film crew invading a picturesque Vermont town, there’s a tendency to focus on the plentiful insider humor: jokes about last-minute script changes, neurotic movie stars, intrusive product placement. But those details, while often funny in their own right, are largely incidental. As with all the best screwballs, State And Main uses its story as an excuse to gather an assortment of driven eccentrics and let them repeatedly collide, generating random incongruities and running gags. A banner at the train station congratulates the town’s football team for winning the championship in every year of the 1970s except one; when someone asks what happened in 1975, a janitor leans to whisper what’s apparently a dark secret, then retreats when interrupted… and the question is never answered. (Meanwhile, “Go you Huskies!” becomes an all-purpose battle cry, suitable for any occasion.) There are one-liners so simple they almost transcend comedy, as when Macy’s director asks Julia Stiles (then a teenager) “Shouldn’t you be in school?” and she replies, with delectable condescension, “It’s night.” Most of all, the tentative romance between Philip Seymour Hoffman’s fledgling screenwriter and Pidgeon’s blithely accepting local ranks among the daffiest of the modern era, with both actors embodying the genre’s tradition of stylized performance while remaining true to Mamet’s particular sensibility (thus preventing the film from coming across like mere pastiche). There had always been rich veins of humor in Mamet’s work, mostly involving hilariously profane outbursts, but State And Main reveals a love for goofiness and frivolity that had previously been entirely hidden, along with a gift for rapid-fire pacing that Judd Apatow would do well to study.
There’s more good fun to be had in Heist, but it also represents a disappointing step backward—yet another convoluted puzzle box in which nothing and nobody can be trusted. It did give Mamet the opportunity to work with the great Gene Hackman (in one of his last few film roles before retiring), who took naturally to the role of a gruff, self-sufficient career thief pulling the usual One Last Job, with the usual complications. It’s all skillfully done, and might have been more exciting had Mamet not spent the previous two movies proving that his interests and abilities were considerably broader than a series of elaborate double- and triple-crosses. Even the generic single-word title implies a certain “here you go” attitude. A holding pattern, at best.
|4.0||Spartan (also dir.)||2004|
|2.5||Redbelt (also dir.)||2008|
|4.0||Phil Spector (also dir.)||2013|
That burst of productivity was short-lived, as it turned out. After making three films in three years, Mamet has since directed only three in the last nine, one of them a TV movie for HBO. Whether this is related to his much-publicized conversion to conservatism is unclear. (He remained active in the theater during that time, and also created The Unit for CBS.) Oleanna provoked a degree of controversy when it ran Off-Broadway, as some cultural critics felt it argued that harassment charges in general tend to be unfounded, but there was no sense at that time that Mamet would one day be happily talking to Rush Limbaugh and writing op-ed pieces opposing gun control. Still, however ludicrous his political opinions may seem (“Israelis would like to live in peace within their borders; the Arabs would like to kill them all”), they haven’t yet infected his dramatic work, though many people seem intent on viewing everything he does through that lens.
Spartan finds Mamet at his most ruthlessly efficient. The story is simple: bad guys have kidnapped a young woman (Kristen Bell), intending to sell her into sexual slavery without having any idea that she’s the daughter of the president of the United States. A Delta Force gunnery sergeant (Val Kilmer) means to rescue her. Kilmer isn’t the best match for Mamet’s odd locutions, but it doesn’t matter much, as this is one of his least verbal films: It begins with a training exercise conducted in deadly silence, and becomes the kind of movie in which a major character can be abruptly, instantly killed at any moment. In many ways, Spartan is the movie equivalent of an airport novel: quick, streamlined, direct, relentless. Its title fits it perfectly.
Four years passed before Mamet directed his next film—at this writing, his most recent theatrical release. (In the interim, fellow Chicagoan theater alumnus Stuart Gordon directed a solid, nicely atmospheric adaptation of Mamet’s Edmond, written way back in 1982.) His sudden, public switch from blue to red took place during this period, and he also became a student of jujutsu, which he incorporated into the faintly exasperating Redbelt. Chiwetel Ejiofor exudes stony charisma as the instructor who takes on both an attorney seeking self-defense lessons after being attacked (Emily Mortimer) and a movie star (Tim Allen) looking for a fight coordinator. But the movie hammers its protagonist’s code of honor so hard that he becomes downright drippy, and the movie, more than any of Mamet’s others (including Oleanna), plays like a poorly disguised thesis rather than a compelling drama for its own sake.
That was the general response to Phil Spector, as well, though in this case, it was badly misguided. Five years after Redbelt—during which time Mamet published a singularly stupid book (The Secret Knowledge: On The Dismantling Of American Culture) and made the rounds of right-wing talk shows—he finally re-emerged with what looked, from the title and HBO’s ad campaign, like a lame attempt to cash in on the ghoulish interest in Spector’s murder trial. Casting Al Pacino in the title role merely underlined the impression that this was a crass exercise in opportunism, and that Mamet had gone irretrievably around the bend. Reviews complained that the movie was little more than propaganda designed to resuscitate Spector’s public image at his victim’s expense.
In fact, Phil Spector is a relatively minor character in Phil Spector (which should have had a different title), and the movie, which opens with a bizarre disclaimer stating that it’s entirely a work of fiction, isn’t really about the Spector case. Rather, it’s a close cousin to Anatomy Of A Murder, examining the legal system as it’s conducted pre-trial, from the perspective of a defense attorney (Helen Mirren as Linda Kenney Baden) whose efforts are repeatedly stymied by the capricious whims of judges on one hand and by her client’s eccentric behavior on the other. Pacino’s presence is a distraction, but his monologues primarily draw an ever-tightening net around Baden’s options, and Mamet spends less time with him than with a series of increasingly outré experiments designed to persuade a jury that certain possibilities can’t be so easily dismissed, even though they seem ridiculous on their face. For all the law-based TV shows out there, there’s been remarkably little credible depiction of what goes on for weeks and months before the first witness is called; it’s very much by design that Mamet ends the movie the moment the trial begins, after Spector’s Hendrix fright wig forces Baden into abruptly revising her entire strategy. Mamet’s sense of what constitutes useful public policy may have been warped beyond repair, but his mind remains as sharp as ever; even his true-crime celebrity biopic finds a wholly unexpected angle.
“Good people, bad people,” Steve Martin says in The Spanish Prisoner. “They generally look like what they are.” Mamet probably believes that. His own life and work refute it.