When people are put in desperate situations, they resort to desperate methods. That is the very premise of Glengarry Glen Ross, which is a story that follows four salesmen over the span of 24 hours, who react when they are told that they will be fired if they fail to produce a withstanding real estate sale that will prove their worth. While the film seems extreme, screenwriter David Mamet has stated that the film is loosely based off his experiences as a salesman before he immersed himself in a career of writing. To Mamet, Glengarry Glen Ross is not a film merely about sales and desperation, but it’s about the dehumanization of the human spirit for the sake of making money for an entity that we never see. Characters make repeated mention of their bosses, “Mitch and Murray,” yet we never see them, yet their ruthlessness as bosses is prevalent throughout the film. Added to the theme of dehumanization is the other prevalent theme of masculinity. In order to have an entity of self-worth, one’s masculinity must be rampant and aggressive. Selling real estate is a cutthroat business and being a nice guy is a liability.
Glengarry Glen Ross originated as a 1984 play that was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Play. Despite not winning, Mamet’s script for Glengarry Glen Ross went onto winning the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The 1992 film adaption is not only a faithful portrayal of the stage version, but the film strives to keep the actions of the film within a constrained setting, very much as the play does. Yet the film does elaborate on themes and plot points, which embellished on the plot and character motivations. Even by David Mamet’s own admission, he believed his film script version of Glengarry Glen Ross was vastly superior to his version he had written for Broadway. This is largely due to the opening monologue (click HERE to view it) given by Alec Baldwin, who is a representative from Mitch and Murray. The monologue is merely one of “do or die,” sell or be fired. The monologue emphasizes the cruel environment of the business, but also provides a deeper understanding as to why characters would be desperate and resort to desperate means. This speech is not part of the original play, nor was it in the Broadway revival in 2005, which offers the film version a unique variation that many fans will claim makes the film vastly superior to the play.
The film primarily is about the unethical methods of these four salesmen as they desperately try to make a sale. They pose as the “Vice-President of the corporation,” pretend they have secretaries, trying to frame selling land as “winning a prize they must sign for,” claim the “property they were once interested in has now increased in value,” among other cheap and somewhat pathetic means to get a prospective customer to sign on the dotted line. This links back to the theme of masculinity and how it projects an image of the salesman. There is George (Alan Arkin), who is too timid, therefore everyone walks all over him. There is Dave (Ed Harris), who is aggressive and usually shouting his opinion, but it is all a ruse since he is devoid of any true strength. Yet it is the film’s two main leads who provide the most interesting contrast of the masculinity theme: Shelley (Jack Lemmon) and Ricky (Al Pacino). Lemmon’s Shelley is a completely emasculated individual because he cannot keep his weaknesses hidden, while Pacino’s Ricky is someone who recognizes one’s weaknesses can be used to his advantage. Ricky carefully figures out one’s inherent flaws and manipulates them just enough to get his customer to feel that Ricky is his friend and will trust him enough to sign on the dotted line. Ricky, who is on a “hot-streak,” doesn’t worry about the cruelty of his business precisely because he recognizes it for what it is and further recognizes he, too, must be a cutthroat in order to survive within it.
Glengarry Glen Ross is tremendously unique film, but it is also one immersed in social and business commentary. Still to this day, this film is used as an exemplar to prospective salesman in an effort to highlight excellent selling strategy, while also pinpointing unethical strategies that are strongly discouraged.
For the vast majority of Jack Lemmon’s career, he starred in roles that were primarily about characters who wanted to reassert their control and ultimately do with a little pushback. The characters he starred as were put-together and sure of themselves. This is entirely the opposite with Lemmon’s performance as Shelley Levine in Glengarry Glen Ross. The character is weak-willed, desperate, and utterly pathetic. He is someone who has been stepped on for so long that he had long accepted it until this night when his job is at stake. Lemmon’s performance first hints at this sentiment in the beginning of the film with him attempting to make nice and even laughing when Alec Baldwin snaps at him for getting a cup of coffee. “Coffee is for closers,” Baldwin’s character tells Lemmon, who initially laughs. It is when Shelley recognizes the severity of the company’s attitudes towards its workers that Lemmon shifts the performance to extreme desperation.
While the theme of masculinity is prevalent in the film with characters trying to maintain their own or knowing how to manipulate it, Lemmon’s character is one who is completely stripped of his masculinity. He attempts to fight, but backs down quickly. He takes no risks and his nervousness is apparent whenever he tries to make a pitch of any kind. This is a different type of performance from Lemmon, who twiddled his character down to being utterly pathetic. Yet the brilliance from Lemmon’s acting falls in that despite how low he is, there is a level of sympathy offered to the character. This allows for the audience to root for Shelley because his weaknesses are almost heartbreaking to watch. We realize he is someone who has long been attributed as nothing and he is finally trying to be something. Yet what Lemmon further brings to the character is the reality that Shelley once was the one “on a hot streak” and was beloved by the higher ups. Lemmon’s acting conveys Shelley’s realization that one is expendable in such a business as sales where you are only as good as your last sale. Your past, your achievements, even how much money you’ve brought in equates to zero. Lemmon’s character is someone who is trying to reclaim that status, but is continually realizing the obstacles before him that keep him in the abyss that he currently is within.
While it wasn’t his favorite performance of his career, Jack Lemmon had stated that the cast of Glengarry Glen Ross was his favorite of his career. The cast is indeed incredible to acknowledge when considering that it possessed four Oscar winners (Pacino, Lemmon, Arkin, Spacey), two Oscar nominees (Baldwin, Harris), and a Tony winner (Pryce). However, what makes this cast incredible, which is what Lemmon may have been referring to, is that despite the tremendous caliber of the cast, they each made their respective characters their own and gave each other space to allow them to build upon their characters. However, it was integral that the cast complimented each other with their diverse personalities. Character development within this film occurs with the dialogue, not with the actions within the film. Lemmon’s performance success hinged on the cast supporting him because that is in the nature of his character.
Shelley Levine is someone who has only stayed above water because of others, most specifically because of Pacino’s Ricky Roma, who still idolizes him and views him as a mentor. It is the Pacino-Lemmon scenes when they are together that are especially special within this film. Yet is the body language in such scenes that make them special and worth noting. Pacino’s Ricky is a dominant character, who commands and controls every scene and circumstance he is in. This immediately changes when he interacts with Lemmon’s Levine. Like a child listening to an elder in admiration, Ricky sits in a chair to the side of Shelley’s desk and listens to him recount his successes. It is in these moments that Lemmon’s performance dramatically shifts. He becomes more confident, consumed with pride, and excited to share the details of his success to someone he knows wants to listen to him. Lemmon was able to instill hope into the character in such moments, therefore providing him with the necessary humanity he needed. This is quite the contrast from the desperate individual he was introduced as, which made the character extend beyond being one dimension in scope.
Glengarry Glen Ross is perhaps one of the biggest deviations Jack Lemmon ever took with the character-types he commonly played within films. The character is determined to be strong, yet is fragile and very weak. It is astonishing, and ought to be considered criminal, that Jack Lemmon did not get an Oscar nomination for Supporting Actor for this film. Instead, Al Pacino managed to get an Oscar nomination, which was very much deserved, but it was Lemmon who provided the necessary humanity into an otherwise gritty film. Nonetheless, Jack Lemmon’s performance as Shelley Levine is one of the best performances of his career.