It was my third day without electricity in Washington, D.C., and I had one movie on my iPod: “Glengarry Glen Ross,” the 1992 film based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by David Mamet. I had downloaded it from iTunes about an hour before a vicious and deadly storm hit Washington a couple weeks ago. Suddenly the lights were out, and I had one movie to last me for the next few days — or until my iPod battery died.
I spent the next three days in the dark with Alec Baldwin. Baldwin is one of the stars of “Glengarry Glen Ross,” and I concluded that in the seven minutes that Baldwin is in this film, he has earned a pass from me for any past or future idiocy he may perpetrate in the name of liberalism. Genius is genius, and in the name of recognizing objective greatness, conservatives should embrace Baldwin in “Glengarry” without qualm. This man is a lion — or rather, used to be.
“Glengarry Glen Ross” was released 20 years ago this fall, and the film is probably more relevant today than when it was first released. It tells the story of a group of desperate real estate salesmen in Chicago who are in danger of losing their jobs if they don’t make sales. They work in an environment of ethical sclerosis and financial ruthlessness, and the play depicts what happens when men are faced with total economic ruin. I would compare it to a contemporary film to give an idea of what it’s like, but there are no contemporary films like “Glengarry Glen Ross.” And for skill, animal magnetism, and just plain balls, no actor alive today can touch the Alec Baldwin of 1992. All these years later, you can still smell his cologne in that scene.
Aaron Sorkin is considered a brilliant writer, but “The Newsroom,” his new series, sounds like a high school play compared to Mamet’s work (a few years ago Mamet shocked the entertainment world by coming out as a conservative). The dialogue in “Glengarry” has not only momentum but spiritual heft and maturity. It’s impossible to think of a single contemporary film that is written as well; indeed, the increasing illiteracy of Americans has produced a generation of bad screenwriters, making many movies, including the critically praised ones, unwatchable. The characters in “Magic Mike,” an acclaimed piece of crap by Steven Soderbergh, are one short step removed from grunting apes. The thing is so underwritten that the producers should be embarrassed.
And nobody acts the way Baldwin does in “Glengarry” anymore. Baldwin plays Blake, a successful salesman who gives a motivational speech to the men in the office. His “Coffee is for Closers” speech, which lasts about seven minutes, is still considered one of the towering accomplishments of virtuoso acting. Younger people who see Baldwin on “30 Rock” may not realize it, but in his prime the man was a panther. Consider: Many people still feel that in seven minutes of screen time Baldwin stole a movie that also features Al Pacino, Jack Lemon, Ed Harris, and Kevin Spacey.
And watching it (during a power outage, in the dark, over and over), I found myself thinking: What young actor could pull this off today? Ryan Gosling? Nope. The beefcakes sucking blood on “Twilight”? A joke. Shia LaBeouf? Please. In “Glengarry,” Baldwin displays what may be a vanishing art in Hollywood acting: the ability to harness energy coupled with the mastery of delivery and tone. He completely owns the scene, yet never overacts. He’s not overly glib — Ben Affleck in “The Boiler Room” -– or a sheet of granite, like Christian Bale in the Batman movies. Baldwin injects his ruthlessness with just a dollop of sarcasm, and runs a current of eros through it. It’s not surprising that it’s still viewed in acting classes the way Michael Jordan’s greatest games are viewed by sports fans.
Baldwin never reached such heights again. After “Glengarry” he did “Malice,” “Thick as Thieves,” and other junk, and became increasingly shrill and ridiculous in his liberal advocacy. He found new life as a comic actor, and he’s good in “30 Rock,” but it’s incredible that the man who was a god for seven minutes on screen 20 years ago is now playing a fat hippie in “Rock of Ages.” Maybe David Mamet can talk some sense into him.
Mark Judge is the author of A Tremor of Bliss: Sex, Catholicism, and Rock ‘n’ Roll.