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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Alan Arkin could do it all. In ‘Glengarry Glen Ross,’ he did.


Alan Arkin’s character, and his performance, were distinct from the varying displays of roaring machismo from the other salesmen in “Glengarry Glen Ross.”

By Jason Bailey


When news broke that venerable character actor Alan Arkin had died Thursday at 89, he was remembered for roles onstage (“Enter Laughing,” his Broadway debut, for which he received a Tony Award), on the big screen (his Oscar-winning performance in “Little Miss Sunshine”) and on television (his Emmy-nominated turn on “The Kominsky Method”). But Arkin’s finest performance, and one that holds the key to his considerable gifts as both an actor and screen presence, may well be his appearance as a busted-out real estate salesman in the 1992 film adaptation of “Glengarry Glen Ross,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama by David Mamet. The picture came at a fallow point in Arkin’s career; much of his work in the previous decade had been in underseen comedies. He was billed fifth, behind Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Alec Baldwin and Ed Harris, and it was easy to regard him, at that moment, as a comparative lightweight — until you took in his wounded, affecting performance.


“Glengarry Glen Ross” concerns the hustlers and grinders of Premiere Properties, who specialize in “investment opportunities” of Florida swampland, sold primarily to unsuspecting suburbanites under the guise of many-strings-attached prizes and ticking-clock options. Only the hotshot Ricky Roma (Pacino) is selling — or, in their preferred parlance, “closing” — any of this stuff; his fellow salesmen Dave Moss (Harris), Shelley Levene (Lemmon) and George Aaronow (Arkin) are on the verge of getting the ax.


Harris, Lemmon and Pacino all get flashy movie-star entrances; Arkin, on the other hand, is just there, first seen seated in the Premiere Properties office for a sales meeting, in which Blake (Baldwin), a smooth talker “from downtown,” informs them that they’re cutting the sales force in half, in a speech that is simultaneously crude, cruel and entirely emasculating.


Moss and Levene push back against his generalizations, accusations and abuse; Aaronow does not. He just sits there and takes it. “You think this is abuse?” Blake thunders at him. “You can’t take this, how can you take the abuse you get on a sit?” In that delicate moment, Arkin’s face is a mask, trying to keep it together and failing; if you look close enough, into his eyes, he seems on the verge of tears. When he’s finally out of the hotshot’s sights, he lets out a long-held breath.


This sensitivity is what separates Arkin’s character, and his performance, from the varying displays of roaring machismo in “Glengarry Glen Ross.” Pacino’s Roma is all bravado, much of it earned; Lemmon’s Levene and Harris’ Moss attempt the same, snapping and shouting at all who do them wrong, silkily selling to those on the other end of the phone, but their swagger seems more like bluster. Aaronow, on the other hand, is entirely vulnerable, an open wound of desperation and fear. “I’m sure he didn’t mean it, about trimming down the sales force,” he insists, the second Blake leaves, but denial soon gives way to depression. “They’re gonna bounce me out of a job,” he moans to Moss, placing the blame not on the cutthroat standards of the office or the cratering economy outside it, but himself. “Something’s wrong with me,” he insists. “I can’t close ’em.”


In this weakened state, he goes to Moss for emotional support and encouragement; Moss seizes on that need and exploits it, drawing Aaronow into an ill-advised scheme to burglarize the Premiere Properties office and steal the new leads, the good leads, the Glengarry leads. The bullish Moss baits the hook and reels the weaker man in, planting the idea and prompting further inquiry. Watch Arkin’s eyes in this sequence, the way he’s listening, how he takes in the information he’s receiving and processes it; listen closely to the way he says a line like, “Are we talking about this, or are we just talking about this,” understanding the difference between two versions of the word, and deftly conveying it to the listener. And then watch the way he registers that, merely by listening, he has become an accessory to the crime. The simplicity with which that realization comes over his face, and how he puts it across in one simple word (“Me”) is both an astonishing display of acting technique and a heart-wrenching moment of character identification.


Arkin and Harris play this duet sequence like two jazz musicians trading bebop riffs, the relationship established not only by what they say but how they say it — the breakneck tempo, offhand jargon, sentences or even words interrupted midstream, sometimes because one knows where the other is going, sometimes because they can’t bother to wait to say what’s on their mind. Mamet’s hyper-stylized dialogue isn’t easy to act; if the rhythm is off, it can feel unbearably phony, “written” rather than spoken. But Arkin more than holds his own against Harris here, and in later duets with Pacino, a similarly heavyweight dramatic actor.


Yet the genius of his casting is that he can also draw on his innate sense of comic timing, garnering laughs from these jagged exchanges, or when he later overplays his sense of outrage at the crime (“Criminals come, they take and they steal the phones!”) and his interrogation by police (“I meet Gestapo tactics!”). But his best moments as Aaronow are his quiet ones, like when he softly implores Moss (once he’s caught in the mousetrap), “Why are you doing this to me?” He’s not playing for sympathy; this is a muted cry of abandon and despair.


When “Glengarry Glen Ross” was released in November 1992, it seemed like a commentary on what we now dub “toxic masculinity” at the end of the George H.W. Bush era, and the howling, raging, swindling likes of Roma, Moss and Levene felt like pointed snapshots of the 20th-century man. Alan Arkin’s portrayal of George Aaronow feels like their 21st-century counterpart: hopeless, baffled, resigned, anguished. His raw performance is the beating heart of what could have been a cold, bloodless movie, and a reminder of the life and force he brought to so many roles in his long, varied career.cc

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