If You’re Only Coming Around to The Opinion Now That David Mamet Represents Toxic Masculinity….
Then You’re A Bleeping Moron
The last few months David Mamet, one of the greatest writers in the history of theater and film, has been making the rounds for some, shall we say, controversial comments he’s been making about politics and sexuality. I won’t repeat them, because most of you know what they are by now and doing so will just cause more divisiveness, neither of which is the point of this column. What is the point is that over the last several years and especially recently, there has been quite a lot of commentary saying that Mamet is a misogynist who favors toxic masculinity in his work. I have the same regard for those people who only now are starting to say that Bill Maher is not a true progressive.
But at least Maher’s case, you could delude yourself with the idea that because some of his views were against Republicans that he had been converted recently. There’s no excuse for thinking similarly about Mamet. In all honesty, if the term toxic masculinity didn’t exist, Mamet could have been credited for inventing it.
Let’s start with a fairly obvious fact: the lion’s share of Mamet’s characters, on stage and screen, are degenerates and criminals. From American Buffalo to Sexual Perversity in Chicago, from House of Games to The Spanish Prisoner, almost all of Mamet’s characters are at the very least con men, if not downright criminals. Some of them may work in film or politics, but…I don’t really have to give a punch line there, do I?
Another fact that should be just as obvious: Mamet’s characters in almost every play and film are all male. In fact, you can search the lion’s share of Mamet’s play and find they have, at most, one female character. There are more in his works for the silver screen, but most of the time they are either sexual objects or women that can be easily duped. And indeed, in the few that have them they have almost always been played by one of his ex-wives, such as Lindsay Crouse (House of Games) or Rebecca Pidgeon (Spanish Prisoner). Most of these are films that Mamet has more control over the production. The ones that are bigger budget may have larger roles for females (I’m thinking of Anne Heche in Wag the Dog) but there is much difference in their importance.
One particular example is The Edge, a film Mamet wrote the screenplay of but that he later considered butchered by the executives. In that film, Anthony Hopkins is married to Elle Macpherson who is having an affair with Alec Baldwin. The two end up in a plane crash and are engaged in a fight for survival with the elements, especially a bear, and each other. Macpherson’s character may be the cause of the animosity, but her role is no bigger than a stick figure at the beginning and the end of the film. Mamet can claim the executives butchered his film; I think his idea of the wife was in the first draft.
Now this being said, I am a huge admirer of Mamet the writer. I’ve loved many of the plays and films he written over the years, and I think he is one of the great masters of dialogue. That doesn’t mean, of course, that he is not a toxic personality; if we’ve learned one thing over the years in television, it’s that being a genius on the page doesn’t mean that you can’t be a monster to everybody on the set. But in Mamet’s case, it’s always been clear that he believed — decades before it was ‘hip’ — that masculinity is more important than anything, no matter what you are. And this is perhaps clearly in what is likely his most famous work: Glengarry Glen Ross.
Again this is one of the greatest plays in American theater history. It deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize for Best Drama and there is a reason it gets Tony nominations every times it’s revived. Furthermore, the movie version has always been one of my favorite films. It is a master class of acting: Al Pacino deservedly an Oscar nomination and I’ve always thought Jack Lemmon was robbed of one. All the other performances — including those of the controversial Kevin Spacey and Alec Baldwin — are at that level. But when I showed this movie to my parents, their reaction was very different from mine. Both of them thought it was one of the most miserable movies they’d ever seen with no redeeming virtues. I thought at the time, much like with so many other recent great movies, that the problem was generational more than anything else. But looking at certain aspects of the film, in hindsight, there are flaws that I could see deeply affecting their opinion.
First of all, all of the characters in the film are trying to sell real estate lots to people. We never know if the land is legitimate or, like so much else in Mamet’s literature, it’s just another con. What we are aware of is: its life or death for the men in the office, and for most of them it’s not going well.
Now let’s consider Alec Baldwin’s character, the only one written for the film. (In the script, he’s called Blake.) The monologue that Baldwin delivers is one of the most memorable in film history; Baldwin has actually satirized on Saturday Night Live. But consider the nature of it: Blake starts it out by saying that all the people in the office are fired, and that’s the good news. The five minutes that follow basically says that they are all losers and failures and that the only people who are bigger losers and failures are the people they can’t sell the real estate too. Blake argues that they will always be losers and that he will always be better than him because: “this watch costs more than your car.” Then he presents the Glengarry leads as a pot of gold that they will never get. At one point, he makes his message crystal clear for the audience: “You know what it takes to sell? It takes brass balls.”
The message couldn’t be clearer: they’re not real men and they will never be real men. The fact that all of them are clearly older than him doesn’t matter. Whether or not he’s even been a salesman doesn’t matter. The message is clear: close or you get fired. And everyone in the office is so stunned that don’t even question it.
This is only a motivational speech in the sense that it motivates already desperate men to do even more desperate things. Shelley (Lemmon) tries to convince Spacey’s character (the head of the office, closer to Baldwin’s age than anyone else) to give him some decent leads which is futile task. Moss (Ed Harris) and Aaronow (Alan Arkin) go to a Chinese restaurant and in one of the most brilliant sequences in history, Moss suggests they robbed the office and when Aaronow doesn’t want to go along with it, convinced him he’s already agreed to it just by listening.
Now I have to get the only character that wasn’t in the office at the time: Ricky Roma (Pacino). Blake went ahead with the speech even though Roma wasn’t there, and I’ve always figured that was deliberate. Roma was the only member of the team excelling, which by Blake’s definition (and Mamet’s) meant he was a real man. We see Roma essentially engaged in a long pitch to a prospective customer (Jonathan Pryce). Roma doesn’t get to the actual sale until the last line, but watching Roma we see that he views the pitch as a seduction. There is a very sexual nature to both the dialogue and Pacino’s matter, and the method couldn’t be blunter: if you’re going to f — — someone out of their money, you better buy them dinner first. Pacino is doing this, by the way, at a restaurant.
The second act place after the office has been robbed and the Glengarry leads have been stolen. We have been led to think, naturally, that Moss and Aaranow are responsible and the discussions that Roma has with both of them seems to reflect their guilt. Roma’s tone varies with all three men: he treats Moss with disdain, Aaronow with comfort and Shelley with admiration. To be clear, Roma thinks he’s won the Cadillac for the incentive contest, and is being, in his eyes, magnanimous and superior. The main reason he regards Shelley with admiration is because Shelley walks in triumphantly having made a sale of eight units after a bad streak. Shelley’s attitude was rumpled and haggard in the first half of the movie; now he’s cocky and arrogant, treating Spacey’s character with utter disdain. The message couldn’t be clearer: success and money is what makes you a man.
As you’d expect from a Mamet production, there’s a con involved on screen. Pryce’s character comes to the office, wanting his money back. Shelly and Rick start a con where he’s a restaurant owner to try and get him to leave. Pryce is persistent, telling Roma he needs to stop payment, and critically, the excuse given is that wife is made. Roma engages in another seduction, first trying to convince him of his masculinity, then assuring him that the sale hasn’t gone through yet. He’s about to close again when Spacey’s character comes out and, without reading the situation, blows the deal. After Pryce leaves, Roma utterly berates Spacey’s character and once he goes into the office, so does Shelley. It is likely the assault on his masculinity more than anything else that leads Spacey to make a critical deduction about Shelley and, because of this insult from him, he decides to destroy him. (I won’t reveal the nature of the ending because, despite everything I’ve said, I still believe you need to see the movie.)
So to be clear, in Glengarry Glen Ross, masculinity is all, masculinity is determined solely by money, it is determined by exerting it on those weaker than you, and if you can’t do that, you’re not a man. I don’t know why anyone would think the man whose greatest success is this work could possibly have ever been considered a sexist.
Look Mamet is still one of the greatest writers in the English language. Hell, he invented an entire style of dialogue which Roger Ebert once considered one of two writers he could recognize immediately. (The other was Tarentino.) The fact that he happens to now seems to have become something of a monster at this late stage in life and that now critics are starting to question whether they can enjoy his work knowing his views doesn’t change that fact.
A critic for New York Magazine wrote in a review of the current revival of American Buffalo that wasn’t sure they liked the production. The play was good, the performances were excellent, everything worked, but could they in good conscience still enjoy Mamet’s recent appearances on television? It’s like every other work of art. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a great TV show and Crimes and Misdemeanors is a great film. The fact that the creators of both have proven themselves to be loathsome individuals show should not affect your enjoyment of them. It is possible to like the work of art and hate the artist. Difficult Men have pervaded every aspect of life, including every medium. Do I have questions about Mamet’s personality now? Yes. But if I run into Glengarry Glen Ross while channel chasing, I’m still gonna bleeping watch it.
As to the rest of you now ‘suddenly’ discovering Mamet’s flaws: for the past four decades, the writing hasn’t just been on the wall, but on the page, the programs and the silver screen. If critics are only debating it now, there’s been a very willful blindness in this case. Blame him for ruining your enjoyment of the plays, but don’t pretend you haven’t had a clue all this time. It’s the kind of blindness that so many characters in Mamet’s work prey upon. Don’t whine about the sale now.