Theme In Glengarry Glen Ross’ Inciting Incident

Am I becoming an old fart, or just arty-farty? Is it normal that in a class of thirty aspiring screenwriters, only one knows what I’m talking about when I mention Glengarry Glen Ross?

In a previous life I was a radio producer and film festival presenter. Once I interviewed the director of Glengarry Glen Ross, which you might expect to be playwright David Mamet. After all, Mamet has directed most of his own screenplays. Glengarry, however, was helmed by James Foley.

Mamet – Elephant In The Room

We didn’t talk much about the movie’s theme. The topic of conversation was David Mamet, given this was an adaptation of a very significant Mamet play.

From what Foley told me, I suspect Mamet must have been a strong presence during production. Foley stopped short of saying that Mamet de facto co-directed.

David Mamet - House of Games, about the theme of obsession?My first exposure to Mamet was at the 1986 Venice Film Festival. Two great movies saw their world premiere on the Venetian Lido: De Palma’s The Untouchables and Mamet’s own remarkable directorial debut House of Games.

House of Games‘ deals with ‘living life direct‘, as opposed to vicariously. The heroine experiences her existence through her clients, until she embarks on a journey of change.

Mamet cast Joe Mantegna in the role of the story’s villain, after the actor won a Tony for his performance as Ricky Roma in the Broadway production of Glengarry Glen Ross. His terrific performance in House of Games instantly put Mantegna on the map as a screen actor.

Glengarry Glen Ross went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama. However, it would not be adapted for the screen until nine years after its massively successful 1983 world premiere in London’s West End.

The Metaphor

Glengarry Glen Ross shows a handful of real estate agents, struggling to save their jobs on a rainy night in Chicago. All but one are vying for the ‘Glengarry leads’. Each has their own strategy of chasing the precious lead cards, which are only handed out to ‘closers’.

What is this story really about? What is its theme?

It shows the mechanics by which the rich only get richer, as Aaranow (Alan Arkin) states. Perhaps this was Mamet’s stance at the time, and it surely makes sense for the real estate world, where it takes steel balls to survive.

Perhaps Glengarry Glen Ross is simply a microcosmos of the American capitalist society? This theme would be illustrative of Mamet’s socio-democratic views at the time. He left those ideas behind, and famously converted to the right in 2008.

To me, Glengarry is – like every truly great story – a metaphor for life. The ‘leads’ are ‘the cards’ we are dealt. Some accept them, and make the best of it. Others keep fighting them, trying to change what they cannot – and ultimately ending up exhausted. Or worse.

Deadline – Theme – Stakes

The inciting incident of the movie underscores this theme. In a spectacular monologue, the agents are dealt not the precious lead cards, but a deadline. Now it is closers vs. losers.

Baldwin’s lines imply that this is about a lot more than some real estate. Where Little Miss Sunshine would become a more lighthearted take on the winners vs. losers theme, in Glengarry we go the heart of darkness. The stakes are sky high. Lives depend on these cards. As a result, the players will show us their darkest side.

Why is this the inciting incident? Because it confronts the players with a challenge they have never faced before. It also puts them in a situation where they must act. How they will each respond, will be seen in the next act. Note that screen act structure is quite different from theatre structure, and in this respect Glengarry is compositionally somewhat of a hybrid.

The Scene

Alec Baldwin - His monologue in Glengarry Glen Ross delivers the theme.The stage play was so short, Mamet needed to extend it for the movie. He added material, including this early scene with a character that didn’t originally exist. Alec Baldwin was cast to play the role of a character who only refers to himself as “Fuck you! That is my name!” The super salesman tells our anti-heroes in the first act that they will have to close – or lose their jobs. Baldwin embraced the material so vibrantly, it became a career-defining moment.

Al Pacino does not appear in the movie’s most important scene. His character Ricky Roma does his own thing. He doesn’t need to take lessons from Head Office. Putting him in the scene would have diminished the dramatic impact of the speech, while Al Pacino’s screen presence would have undermined Baldwin’s.

It was a bold move to keep the movie’s biggest star out of its strongest scene. Yet it resulted in an instant classic moment, full of dialogue fireworks, and rich in theme. It also confirmed that Mamet once was not only a great playwright, but an equally brilliant screenwriter.

-Karel Segers


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