From his first writing credit (1981’s adaptation of “The Postman Always Rings Twice”) through his most recent writer-director gig (the 2013 TV movie “Phil Spector”), David Mamet has given us a new appreciation for the way men talk to each other, outlined the keys to pulling off long cons, and provided insightful looks into controversial historical figures ranging from the Prohibition era to tabloid headline-grabbers.
David Mamet is known for writing con movies, and he sticks to that style even in his biographical/historical tales such as “Hoffa” (1992). Mamet’s worldview that everything is a con of some sort works perfectly for telling the life story of the man who started the Teamsters union. The film also boasts Danny DeVito’s steady direction and calm, almost sad performance as Jimmy Hoffa’s second-in-command; a classic turn by Jack Nicholson in the title role; and many other markers of prestige filmmaking.
Scrolling through options under a “David Mamet” search on my Roku, “Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay” (2012) comes up a lot. (It’s currently available for free with ads on Vudu.) It’s only tangential to Mamet, who is one of the interview subjects in the documentary. But Jay (1946-2018), like Mamet, is fascinating to listen to when he talks about his craft, so this will likely be of interest to both Mamet fans and magic fans.
Oleanna” (1994) might be writer-director David Mamet’s most divisive film. It examines the important issue of whether college should still be a revered institution, but it’s also hard to watch at times, as it’s essentially a 90-minute awkward-conversation-turned-argument between professor John (William H. Macy) and student Carol (Debra Eisenstadt). It presents points of view that will likely get viewers’ blood boiling, especially when Carol flips the script and starts lecturing her teacher on how to behave – while she’s backed by the very institution that had afforded John a career doing what he loves.
Like he would later do for Hollywood with “State and Main” (2000), writer David Mamet lovingly pokes fun at the art of the stage in “A Life in the Theatre,” a 1993 TNT movie based on his 1977 play. Jack Lemmon is magnetic as Robert, an aging community theater thespian, and Matthew Broderick is mostly a sounding board as the up-and-coming John, who is starting to get calls to work in film.
The Amazon Prime description for “Lansky” (1999) includes “notorious,” “gambling,” “bootlegging,” “racketeering” and “murder,” but the film – written by David Mamet and directed by John McNaughton for HBO – paints a warm picture of mob boss Meyer Lansky (1902-83). Along with a treasure of a performance by Richard Dreyfuss, “Lansky” is driven by the intrinsic fascination of someone who is a normal family man and skilled businessman, but who is targeted by the U.S. federal government and hated by a percentage of the populace.
Film being a director’s medium, “House of Games” put David Mamet on the map in 1987. But his big-screen career launched earlier in the decade with “The Postman Always Rings Twice” (1981), in which he adapts the 1934 novel by James M. Cain. (It was also adapted in 1946.)
American Buffalo” (1996) is a mid-level example of the work of David Mamet, who writes the screenplay based on his 1975 stage play. I found it thoroughly watchable, driven by the performances by Dennis Franz (“NYPD Blue”) and Dustin Hoffman (“Wag the Dog”), but when it was over, I reflected on strange choices in storytelling and what’s emphasized by director Michael Corrente and editor Kate Sanford.
David Mamet is known for writing great dialog, but “The Old Religion” — his 1997 novel about the murder trial and conviction of innocent Jewish factory manager Leo Frank in 1914 Atlanta — is mostly an inner monologue. While the book is based on historical facts, getting into Frank’s head is purely a matter of the author’s imagination. But the directions Frank’s mind goes in as he tries to make sense of what’s being done to him feel accurate.
Although the two versions of “About Last Night” are one and two degrees removed from David Mamet’s stage play “Sexual Perversity in Chicago” – on which the first film is based (the second film is then based on the first film) – some Mametian traits are still in evidence. Here are my takes on the two movies, one of which is worth the effort to track down: