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


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.

He's like a knight on a quest; when he feels the hot lick of that spotlight, everything, every impulse toward moderation vanishes; the high of feeling himself borne upward and onward on the surf of an audience's love is too powerful an elixir to deny. But his bitterness also cripples him; every bad break he gets turns him graceless and crabby. Adversity makes him psycho; he even attacks Ed Sullivan on "The Ed Sullivan Show," a truly bad career move from which his career never quite recovers. Years later, in his dotage, he has a shot at a big movie on the basis of a hot new director's childhood memories of him. When that is reduced to a smaller but still substantial part, he explodes, destroying everything that he and his new agent had labored so hard to build. Why? Buddy hasn't an answer; it's as if his tongue is an unlicensed weapon, apt to go off at any moment.

Entertainment culture has long revered such figures, of course. In "The Music Man," first a stage show and then a wildly successful 1962 film, Robert Preston played a smooth-talker who beguiled town after town into putting up a big sum to finance a school band; he had a distressing habit of taking the money and running, but the theme of the show was his redemption: Saved by love, he actually ponies up 76 trombones to lead the big parade.

A similar theme was worked in "The Rainmaker," again a stage play and then a movie (1952); in its movie version, it fell to protean, charismatic Burt Lancaster to beguile a batch of Hoosier farmers into plunking some money into his black magic. Again, the theme is redemption and belief; because the people believe so hard, the rain actually arrives. But neither of these figures quite has the darkness associated with contemporary versions of the character.

The Miller-Bruce connection

The placement of the salesman and the stand-up comic into the realm of existential angst is largely the creation of two men: Arthur Miller and Lenny Bruce. Miller, in his immortal "Death of a Salesman," was the first to understand the exhaustion of selling and to see the salesman as victim of larger capitalist forces. This line of thinking would insist that much in the way that militarism burns up infantrymen, so does capitalism burn up salesmen, using them as long as they produce, then abandoning them. It's the sense of exile and displacement -- of not counting -- that so animates Willy Loman. "Attention must be paid," his wife insists, but his tragedy is that attention won't be paid. Nobody cares. He's gone, he's lost, his death is a kind of mercy.

"Glengarry Glen Ross" is a kind of collective "Death of Salesmen." Lemmon's Shelley Levene is one immediate casualty, a small-beer Willy Loman hellbent on destruction; but the others in the office are equally doomed, even the slick Ricky Roma (Al Pacino), the bull stud of the bullpen, the only closer in the bunch. Why? Because they're little guys; up against big capital and an economy wrecked by big capital, they're the first to go.

As for Bruce, he made comedy existential. An extremely gifted monologuist, he had something of Buddy Young's self-destructive tendencies, as well as a whole pathology of addictions, which Crystal leaves out of his movie (to him, show biz is a warm and schmoozy place, like a large Jewish family). But he could not keep his mouth shut, either; and, driven by his addictions, he took his material further and further out, while involved in a dance with censors in various states. He became stand-up comedian as victim, a kind of jazz musician of language, whose improvisatory stylings, free-form and frequently obscene, got him deeper and deeper into trouble, even as his heroin addiction was going berserk. He killed himself with too much of the stuff, and in some circles was seen as a victim of fear and intolerance.

Of course, both these characters -- the salesman and the stand-up comic, as played by Lemmon and Crystal -- are Jewish, and they may ultimately find their roots in Jewish traditions of selling in such high-pressure industries as the garment industry, where shameless aggression and nerve are prized attributes. The figures relate to a non-agrarian tradition, where shrewd mercantilism became the only available way of life in the unkind reaches of Europe. But the larger point isn't ethnic; Willy Loman wasn't Jewish, the salesmen in "Tin Men" (1987) may have been, but nothing was made of it; Tom Cruise, in "Rain Man" (1988) wasn't; and of course neither the Rainmaker nor the Music Man was. Richard Pryor, who played the line of the self-destructive stand-up comedian as far as it could go in "Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling" (1986), certainly wasn't.

Living by wits

Instead, these figures represent a universal fascination with a much-revered skill: living by our wits. Few enough can do it; most of us work on teams, in corporations or industries, measured and watched every step of the way. It's no surprise, then, that in the subtext of our popular culture, we truly admire men who go it alone.

This figure most frequently packs a gun; Warshow got that part )) right. But sometimes he doesn't. Naked, he goes into battle with a shtick alone, no place to hide, not a playwright's words to

mantle him. It's him and that's that. We may not admire him, as we do not admire the gunslinger, but we respect him. He's got something. Call it guts or chutzpah, it's something not a lot of people have.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad