One kind of hero lives by the word and dies by the word

October 04, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

The great film critic Robert Warshow once observed that the most purely American movies were about cowboys and gangsters: men with guns. True enough, but there's at least some evidence of a minor counter-tradition worth considering: the tradition of men with spiels.

Yakkers, con men, voluble, risible chums, they're nearly identical: Your best friend whom you never saw before, he wants to make you laugh or he wants to take your money (same thing, really); basically, he just wants to control you and have his way with you. That is, if the despair doesn't kill him first. Ladies and gentlemen, have I got a deal for you: the American salesman -- in James Foley's version of the David Mamet play "Glengarry Glen Ross," which opened Friday -- and the American stand-up comedian, Billy Crystal in "Mr. Saturday Night," which also recently opened. Has anybody noticed that they are the same movie about the same man?

Both identify the ego as the blessing that kills, the will as the gift that crucifies. Both take equal parts pleasure and pain from their central figures: men with titanic manipulative skills, wits fast as death by gunshot, gladiators of the silver tongue, who know the ecstasy of perfection, whether it's selling a slice of Arizona desert to a Bronx widower or rupturing the spleen of the fat guy in the third row. But at a cost: it's as if each performance, each con, each nudge, each trick, takes its toll of their own diminishable souls until, in the end, there's nothing left to give and no ultimate fate except exhaustion.

Fallen champions

Both focus on fallen champions: In "Glengarry Glen Ross," Jack Lemmon is Shelley Levene, once, in the argot of the trade, a closer's closer, now barely hanging on by his bitten-down nails. He's got a sick daughter, and hasn't pushed a lot (he sells real estate in an Arizona development out of a crummy office in Queens) in months. Up there on the big board beside his name is a big, fat zero. Now, suddenly, the boys from "downtown" -- his sleazy realty firm's owners -- have decreed that he and the other losers must produce or lose their jobs and be exiled into a society that has no use for burnt-out white men in their 50s with no appreciable skills.

Thus Shelley has a night to land a sucker -- a rainy night, at that. His leads -- the addresses and phone numbers of likely victims, by which a salesman lives or dies -- aren't worth an empty glass of bourbon. Lemmon the actor is at his full power here, in a role he must have been born to play. What a Willy Loman he'd make! His Shelley Levene is all driven, unctuous charm, a tide of panic riding just an inch or so under his surface as he tries to steer his way toward the golden ring. What's great about the performance is the way Lemmon concentrates all Shelley's anxieties into body language: as he seduces over the phone, his body seems to inflate or expand like a cobra's hood, to enfold the instrument of his deliverance or destruction. At the same time, his fat, greedy fingers grip the phone like a strangler; his face is radiant with desire as he pulls old tropes out of his bag of salesman's tricks. And when he fails, his despair is as palpable as a nuclear implosion; he seems to instantly surrender to soul-deep fatigue, as if his atoms themselves have yielded to entropy. His every line alters and sags; senility seems to come across him in an instant.

Senility comes over Buddy Young Jr. at a more stately pace. In "Mr. Saturday Night," Billy Crystal gives us 50 years in this gent's shoes, and there must be nicer places to be. Buddy is funny, nobody ever says he wasn't; but, like Shelley, he's driven and, like Shelley, he's in decline and despair. The movie begins at the end of another one-night stand on the down slope of a career that's been vectoring toward collapse since the '50s. That's because, like Shelley Levene, Buddy Young has a darkness inside that compels him toward destruction even as he can dissolve anyone into gales of laughter. He cannot keep his mouth shut; it lashes out, destroying those whom he would love (such as his brother, his wife, his daughter); he'll do anything for a laugh.

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