David Mamet, William H Macy, and their movie collaborations

We look at three of the finest collaborations between writer/director David Mamet, and actor William H Macy...

David Mamet and William H Macy have a long history together. First meeting as acting student (Macy) and teacher (Mamet) in Vermont led to the formation of a small theatre company that moved to Chicago, and then to founding a bigger theatre company and acting school in New York. From there they both made the jump to film, and have had walked separate paths at times. But the projects on which they have collaborated are, for me, some of the most interesting in both of their careers.

Mamet made his name as a playwright, and although he also directs it is the twofold draw of the plot and dialogue that remain his trademarks. Twists and turns abound in his scripts; trickery and deception within organisations and within characterisation can confound the viewer. And the dialogue – that is a unique, quick-fire, repetitive, interruptive give and take between the actors that can seem impenetrable at first but soon deepens into a rhythm that brings its own rewards. Nobody delivers it better than Macy, who often keeps expression to a minimum in order to let the dialogue do the work; he clips out the smokescreen words with an impenetrable quality to his hard gaze, so his physical actions can shock us. It’s an approach to film acting that Mamet uses to brilliant effect at times.

Here’s a closer look at three of the films Mamet and Macy have made together in which Macy acted and Mamet wrote/directed:

Homicide (1991)

The world of law enforcement is explored here as an elite club with a language all of its own. Banter, wisecracks and expletives abound, sorting the cops from the victims as easily as a uniform or a badge. This was the third film that Mamet both wrote and directed, and Macy is not the lead here; that role falls to another actor that often appears in Mamet’s films: Joe Mantegna. He plays Bobby Gold, a Jewish homicide detective who doesn’t realise how marginalised he is within the police force until he starts to reluctantly investigate a case of murder within the Jewish community.

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The direction is slick and clever, honing in on small details and taking us by surprise at points. There’s a great moment where Mantegna takes a telephone call in a private office, and rants about the case he’s taken on. The camera concentrates on his face as he curses and complains about the Jewish family he’s dealing with, and then he shifts his weight a fraction, just enough for us to see that one of the family members, a young woman, is sitting in the office calmly listening to every word he says. Then we cut, and see the instant when he realises she has heard everything. There’s a split second of fear and humiliation, and then the dialogue kicks in fast as he says whatever comes into his head to try to salvage the situation. She asks him how he could talk that way about his own people, but the question at the heart of this film is – does Gold truly have any people? Who is he, at his core?

It’s Macy who gets the key line in the film, though, as Gold’s loyal and driven best friend Sullivan. In a rare conversation for a Mamet script the two of them share a moment of true understanding while discussing a case, and where Gold’s loyalties should lie. ‘You’re like my family,’ Gold says, to which the immediate, confident reply is from Sullivan, ‘I am your family.’ The inclusiveness Sullivan offers to Gold is what gives the film its real dilemma – whether social, professional or religious ties are stronger.

So it’s a drama about internal choices, but Homicide is also a very good police procedural thriller, keeping you guessing from one moment to the next. It has one of those endings you either love or hate, too. It raises as many questions as it answers.

Finally, it’s also one of those films, made just before the internet changed so many aspects of many working lives, that reminds you of how police work was once about chasing paper as much as chasing bad guys. All the clues Gold finds appear to be delicate scraps, old photographs or ripped newspaper advertisements. He holds them out to people as if they are evidence, but how quickly they could all blow away.

Oleanna (1994)

An unembellished cinematic version of Mamet’s play, Oleanna isn’t an inspired piece of direction, adding additional settings and camera movements that only seems to lessen the impact; but with words like these it really doesn’t matter much. It’s just good to know that a permanent copy exists of this most challenging of plays. It deals with three meetings between a student and a teacher during which time their relationship changes in deeply disturbing ways.

Macy plays the teacher who, early on, gets the lion’s share of the incredibly rhythmic dialogue as he attempts to elucidates his thoughts on the subject he teaches – education. The student who fails to understand is played by Debra Eisenstadt. To start with she is at his mercy, needing to pass his class to stay in college. By the end the power is nearly all hers.

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It’s a provocative piece of work, and with language pushed to these extremes of meaning and delivery it’s no wonder that comparisons with Harold Pinter were made. In fact, Pinter directed a version of the play at the Royal Court Theatre in 1993 (with the original ending used rather than the ending Mamet preferred) and wrote in a letter to Mamet, “There can be no tougher or more unflinching play than Oleanna“. It starts arguments wherever it goes; Macy once commented that it started arguments amongst the audience even in the act of being performed. The film version does have flaws, but one of them really isn’t Macy’s performance. If you watch it for anything, watch it for that.

Spartan (2004)

A Washington politician’s daughter is kidnapped, and the indication is that she’s a victim of human trafficking. Scott (Val Kilmer) is the Ranger called in to find her. He’s the best of the best although getting a little long in the tooth; he doesn’t say much, but when he does speak you’d better listen to what he says. Yes, Spartan does precede Taken, and has a similar vibe: bleak, unpleasant, and entirely about a way of living that comes with a particular set of skills that includes hunting people down and taking a bullet without whining. It’s the strong, silent approach that really works cinematically.

There are plot twists, of course, but the draw here is the characterisation hiding behind incredibly clipped dialogue (what else did you expect?) which gives Kilmer an interesting role. Scott is a machine. He takes orders and follows them. When the gameplan changes and he has to think for himself, he’s in trouble, and it registers in his face. This aspect raises Spartan to a very interesting watch, I think. Macy plays an authority figure but there’s very little for him to do here, which is a shame. His character is less nuanced than you might expect, and really only furthers the plot. It just goes to show, as a comparison to Oleanna and Homicide, that there’s only so much an actor can do when their character is there purely to facilitate the action sequences. This decision to sacrifice character for plot right at the very end really is to the detriment of the film, I think.

Mamet worked with Eric L. Haney, a Special Ops veteran, to prepare for the film and from this experience sprang the ideas behind The Unit, a US television show about military life that ran for three years. During the course of that show Mamet apparently sent a letter to the writers outlining his vision of how to create good drama. He wrote, “If you pretend the characters can’t speak, and write a silent movie, you will be writing great drama” and Spartan is a film that surely lives by that rule. It has flaws, but it makes for gripping cinema.

What all three of these films have in common apart from the stylised dialogue and the plot twists are their settings. The world of higher education and the environments of the Police Force and the Armed Forces are all bodies that rely heavily on an unspoken rule structure, and Macy plays the people who believe themselves to be safe within those structures so well. He may criticise them, but he upholds them – and when they are threatened he reacts in surprising ways.

For this is all about power: how we want it, get it, and use it. When watching Macy in these movies the question of where the power lies is always relevant. The dialogue is only a way to reinforce the traditional powerbase, but behind the fast talking there are uncontrollable emotions. And when language fails entirely, and words dry up to silence – that’s when Macy, and Mamet, are at their best.

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Other Mamet/Macy collaborations (with Mamet either writing or directing) include: House Of Games (1987), Things Change (1988), Wag The Dog (1997), State And Main (2000), and Edmond (2005).

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