When the film adaption of David Mamet’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Glengarry Glen Ross opened in fall 1992, few people went to see it for Kevin Spacey. His Oscar-winning turn in The Usual Suspects was still three years away. Spacey didn’t have the star power of his fellow actors, including Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, and Ed Harris. Even Alec Baldwin, who’s only in one iconic scene, got higher billing, no doubt in part because he’d been the lead in the 1990 blockbuster hit The Hunt For Red October. Spacey’s role isn’t as central as his costars’, but that was a symptom of his lower stature in the Hollywood food chain. The bigger names got the bigger roles, while Spacey’s job in Glengarry Glen Ross was to be a supporting player, complementing the powerhouse actors around him.
Watching the film now, it’s strange to see Spacey as John Williamson, the drab office manager of the real-estate firm Premier Properties. With his curt manner, unfashionable eyeglasses, and cheap, conservative haircut, Williamson is a company man, not the guy who steals the spotlight. (How could he, in an office where Shelley Levene is backslapping endlessly, and Ricky Roma is strutting around with serene, man-eating confidence?) By comparison, Williamson is the deadpan drip who’s meant to be played by a seasoned, underappreciated character actor like J.T. Walsh, who portrayed him on the stage in Chicago and on Broadway in 1984. In hindsight, Spacey seems too big of a star—too big of a personality—to get a nonentity numbers-guy like Williamson right.
But the problem with hindsight is that it robs us of our memory of the performer Kevin Spacey used to be. It’s not that he was a superior actor at the time of Glengarry Glen Ross—he was simply a different kind of actor. Consequently, over the span of that 1992 drama, audiences can watch how Kevin Spacey transformed into “Kevin Spacey”: the supremely assured, slightly diabolical, vaguely smug persona he later brought to bear in works as different as American Beauty and House Of Cards. And because those qualities are now recognized staples of Spacey’s performances, they give his muted portrayal of Williamson an extra sting nobody could have anticipated back then.
Spacey was hardly an unknown quantity before Glengarry. Studying drama at Juilliard in the late 1970s, he started a stage career in the early ’80s, performing in plays in Central Park and on Broadway. Within a few years, he was in a production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, starring alongside his idol Jack Lemmon, whom he’d met as a teenager while taking part in a theater workshop. “[A]fter I did a scene from a play… [Lemmon] walked over to me, this little 13-year-old, slightly shy kid who dreamed of being an actor,” Spacey recalled in 2014, “and he put his hand on my shoulder, and he said [in Jack Lemmon voice], ‘That was a touch of terrific. You should know you’re a born actor. You should go to New York, and you should study acting, because you were meant to do this for a living. You should do this, I’m telling you.’”
The two men acted together again after Long Day’s Journey, including in the 1989 drama Dad, but by the time they reunited on Glengarry, Spacey was landing roles in movies and television shows. In the early ’90s, he won a Tony for Lost In Yonkers, and he starred in Fall From Grace, a rather cheesy TV biopic of disgraced televangelist Jim Bakker, alongside Bernadette Peters, who got top billing as Tammy Faye.
Spacey’s career was on the rise, but he didn’t have the cachet or profile of his fellow Glengarry actors. In a 1997 interview with Venice, Spacey credited Pacino for getting him into the film. (“He’d seen me in this play in New York,” Spacey told the magazine.) During production, the actor felt intimidated by his costars. “[I]t was funny how we all started to take on the characteristics of our parts during the filming,” Spacey told Venice. “I was thinking that I had no right to be there, that I was a stooge, that I was going to be found out at any moment, definitely going to be fired because, you know, there were all these fuckin’ guys—Pacino, Ed Harris, Jack Lemmon, Alan Arkin—and I’m the guy they all hate! And let me tell you, it’s really convincing when actors of that caliber call you a pussy.”
In Glengarry, Williamson runs the office, an arbitrary position that grants him control of the vaunted Glengarry leads, but commands zero respect from the salesmen. In the parlance of the film’s macho, misogynistic, homophobic characters, Williamson is (to quote Pacino’s Roma) a “cunt” and a “fairy,” with Roma at one point informing him, “I don’t care whose nephew you are, who you know, whose dick you’re suckin’ on.” Nobody at Premier would dispute Roma’s derisive assessment. Although these salesmen are flailing, desperate, and drowning, they’re somewhat ennobled by their ruthless kill-or-be-killed worldview. It’s easier to respect those insufferable bastards than a suit-and-tie type like Williamson, who’s merely there, as he puts it in bland corporate-speak, “to marshal my sales force.” Some of Premier’s salesmen will get canned at the end of the month, but Williamson is still the ultimate putz.
The spark of what would become “Kevin Spacey” was evident in the actor’s earlier work. In his 1992 episode of L.A. Law, which aired about nine months before Glengarry opened in theaters, he plays an eccentric millionaire. How eccentric is he? This eccentric:
In that mercifully brief scene, he recalls the haughty egocentric he’s portrayed in everything from Superman Returns to Horrible Bosses. And in Fall From Grace, he shows off his enthusiasm for mimicry—he often pulls out his Jack Lemmon or Johnny Carson impression on chat shows—rendering Bakker as a Southern scammer whose accent makes him sound almost like Bill Clinton, another of Spacey’s go-to favorites. His Bakker is the sort of peacock-proud performance that isn’t far removed from House Of Cards’ Frank Underwood. In addition, he’d played Clarence Darrow in the 1991 TV movie Darrow, and one of the bad guys in 1989’s misbegotten Richard Pryor/Gene Wilder vehicle See No Evil, Hear No Evil. Even early on, Spacey didn’t disappear into roles—he made his characters stand out.
But for Glengarry, he did the exact opposite. Williamson is first seen being brusque to Levene (Lemmon) and Dave Moss in the restroom before the big meeting with Blake (Baldwin), who gives them a dressing-down. From the outset, director James Foley, working from Mamet’s adapted script, encourages viewers not to think about Williamson: He’s the dull heavy, lacking the verbal crackle Blake brings to his “Always Be Closing” speech. The character’s principal function in Blake’s scene is to silently take the coveted Glengarry leads from Blake and lock them away. Williamson is little more than a glorified hall monitor, a punching bag upon which the salesmen can unload and project their frustrations about their terrible leads and cold streaks.
Spacey doesn’t so much disappear into the role as he negates the character, snuffing out every drop of charisma he possesses. It’s evident in his first major scene, when Levene tries to cajole two Glengarry leads out of him. Williamson knows he has the upper hand on this poor wretch, but he never possesses the theatrical flair Spacey wielded in later roles. Listening to Levene beg, Williamson mostly listens, letting Levene’s twitchy anxiety twist in the wind. Even though Williamson has all the power in the scene, he doesn’t feel like the central character: Levene’s hyperactive flustering takes center stage.
But there’s a deeper strategy behind this deceptively low-key performance. Mamet’s work often deals in misdirection, convincing audiences to look one way for the con when it’s actually happening right behind them. This technique has been most apparent in his puzzle movies, House Of Games and The Spanish Prisoner, but one of his deftest switcheroos occurs in Glengarry, although it’s not his usual type of double-cross. And it involves Williamson.
Like the play, the film revolves around a central mystery: Who broke into the office overnight to steal the Glengarry leads? When everyone arrives at Premier the next morning, Williamson is beleaguered and irritable functionary, dealing with both the cops and the never-seen Mitch and Murray. As in the Blake scene, Williamson seems like a peripheral figure. His most-quoted dialogue—the “Will you go to lunch?” mini-soliloquy—occurs during this day-after sequence, but as opposed to his costars, who devour their Mamet morsels like hungry wolves, Spacey sounds exhausted as well as exasperated. It’s the only memorable speech in the movie that isn’t cathartic or chest-beatingly triumphant.
But within Glengarry’s study of power dynamics among alpha males, Mamet hides Williamson in plain sight. Everybody else in the film flaunts his masculinity through big talk and endless profanity. When Roma eviscerates Williamson for screwing up his sale with Lingk— “You never open your mouth ’til you know what the shot is. You fucking child.”—Mamet tellingly gives Williamson no comeback. The character seems defeated and dejected. Which is when Levene decides to lay into the hapless S.O.B., slitting his own throat by advising Williamson that if he’s going to make something up in front of a prospective buyer, it had better help, not hurt.
Spacey’s understated reaction to Levene’s comment is the most unheralded great moment in a film otherwise punctuated by blustery, aggressively actorly flourishes. He’s visibly thinking, putting it all together. Finally, he speaks: “How do you know I made it up?” Right there, the “Kevin Spacey” the world has come to know emerges in full bloom on the big screen. His expression is filled with contempt, arrogance, and the serene assurance that comes with knowing he’s got his prey trapped. It’s the same look from his serial-killer role in Seven, Lex Luthor in Superman Returns, Jack Abramoff in Casino Jack, all the way up to Frank Underwood. At the time of Glengarry’s release, Williamson’s realization that Levene was behind the break-in was a delicious twist—but watching the movie now, it’s as if Spacey finally drops the charade and assumes the mantle of the star he was destined to be.
The rest of the scene is a slow-motion nightmare for Levene, as Williamson lets his enemy crumble into pieces. (Knowing the relationship between the two actors, there’s a sense of the mentor handing the baton to his admiring pupil.) As in their earlier scene, Levene talks and Williamson just listens. Then at last, Williamson has his moment, and Spacey relishes it. He’s calm and cruel as he tells Levene his clients are insane, and his big sale is worthless. He chews his gum for a few seconds, that noticeable Spacey swagger now on display. When he inserts his dagger, it goes in nice and slow: “They just like… talking… to salesmen.” Williamson ends his interaction a bit later with a “Fuck you,” but by then the obscenity is redundant: He has finally gotten his revenge—both on Levene and all those who have disrespected him. And now Kevin Spacey is the Kevin Spacey we know.
Spacey hasn’t stopped working since Glengarry, with plenty of impressive credits dotting his résumé. He continued to play ostensible losers. In The Usual Suspects and American Beauty, which both won him Oscars, he portrays guys who blend into the background, signaling their harmlessness with their unassuming demeanors. And then, as with Williamson, the switch happens.
But as Spacey has become a bigger star, inevitably, he’s lost that ability to surprise viewers with characters whose meekness gives way to a lethal darker side. With rare exceptions—Margin Call comes to mind—Spacey really doesn’t vanish into roles anymore. A born showman, he favors characters who are brash, loud, big: They never stop loving themselves, even if the audience is meant to loathe them.
In that same Venice interview, he’s asked about his reputation as a chameleon, a description that doesn’t fit Spacey almost 20 years later:
You look at guys like Fonda, Stewart, and Tracy, they had this incredible range, despite the fact […] that Jimmy Stewart was Jimmy Stewart,” he replied. “I always have had the feeling that, probably because this was the way I was raised from my first beginnings as an actor, I’d read a play and say “God this is an incredible play! This part, this character is so amazing! I would love to be that person! This is a person I’m not. I wish I had that degree of courage, that degree of intelligence, I wish I was that complex!”
Despite a career full of highlights, he’s always playing Kevin Spacey now. That’s no knock on Spacey; so many stars drift toward, or are chiefly considered for, certain types of roles the longer they work. This partly explains his recent preference for the theater and television—they offer more opportunities to stretch.
Which is why Glengarry Glen Ross remains a fascinating film in his canon, catching him at a moment in his career that’s now impossible to reclaim. If the movie were made today, he’d play one of the bigger roles. With him in the Williamson role, it’d be immediately obvious that this dull office manager wasn’t as colorless as he appears, ruining the surprise. But part of the 1992 film’s power is that it unknowingly cast the perfect person for one of the story’s smaller but crucial characters. For many viewers unfamiliar with Spacey at the time, his performance was a revelation. It also turned out to be a sign of things to come.
This wraps our Movie Of The Week revisiting with Glengarry Glen Ross. Don’t miss Tasha’s Keynote on how the film ignores conventional wisdom about filmmaking, and Genevieve and Scott’s Forum on the film’s jazzy score, its jazzy and quotable language, and the question of which is weak, the leads or the salesmen. Next week, we’ll be back with a look at Two-Lane Blacktop, Monte Hellman’s 1971 look at two men drag racing cross-country. It’s Easy Rider With Anger Issues, more or less. We hope you’ll join us.