Reviewed by Robert Spuhler
Misunderstood or malicious? Predator or prey? In Oleanna, David Mamet's 1994 film adaptation of
his own play, an awkward relationship between college professor and student reaches a
blistering, unexpected climax. Mamet's dialogue is as sharp as always and the performances -
especially by Mamet favorite William H. Macy - are solid, and it is enough to carry
the "filmed play."
After receiving a failing midterm grade, a college student (Debra Eisenstadt)
confronts her teacher (William H. Macy) in his office. After the meeting becomes physical,
she files a complaint of sexual harassment against her professor with the tenure committee.
It's not until the third act that Mamet, through Eisenstadt's Carol, lets his mission statement
slip. "I'm not interested in your feelings or your motivations," she says, "but your actions."
That one line sums up much of Mamet's philosophy towards theatre and film; as a playwright
he crafts characters who don't worry about what they are feeling, but just what they do.
Shelley Levene doesn't care that he's miserable in Glengarry Glen Ross, he just wants
to find a way to keep his job. Joseph Turner White wants to hold onto his integrity in
State and Main; he can't be concerned with how he feels about the movie industry.
Indeed, Oleanna is based on a conflict over that very premise. The plot of the entire
film is centered on a "misunderstanding" between Macy and Eisenstadt. Macy is always looking for
"why": Why isn't Carol succeeding in the classroom? Why does she go to the tenure board? Why
does she seek out the help of an unidentified "group" to back her up? Eisenstadt, meanwhile,
cares nothing about what Macy feels or what he meant, but what happened.
Eisenstadt does well with Carol, a role originally played by Rebecca Pidgeon (Mamet's wife) in
the stage version. It would very easy to come off as shrill, especially in the second and
third acts, but even when Carol is at her least rational and most manipulative, Eisenstadt
manages to inject some humanity.
Macy is fantastic as John, the college professor. He and Mamet have a lengthy history, as
co-founders of the Atlantic Theatre Company and the style of acting they call "practical
aesthetic." The aesthetic viewpoint on acting is simple in theory. All scenes can be broken
down for the actor into three questions: What is the literal action in the scene? What is
the character doing? What is it like in my own life? There is no playing emotion and no
asking of what the character is feeling. What the character is feeling is whatever the actor
is feeling on stage.
While it may sound like common sense, the aesthetic is a dividing subject among many actors.
In Mamet's book True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor, he writes,
"The 'work' you do 'on the script' will make no difference. ... That work has already been done
by a person with a different job title than yours. That person is the author."
Obviously, a playwright telling actors to stay away from interpreting the script is going to
lead to a clash of egos. Those trained in the Stanislavsky, or "method" style of acting could
get heart palpitations by reading that sentence: "How are we supposed to find the character?
Where will our emotional connection come from?"
Interestingly enough, True and False also gives Mamet's take on Macy's character
in Oleanna. "The classroom will teach you how to obey," he writes, "and obedience in
the theater will get you nowhere." Macy's teacher character is sympathetic to the idea that
education is not a substitution for thinking, and it is that idea that Eisenstadt can't get
her head around; she is not a good student, in her mind, because she does not know the answers.
Oleanna works brilliantly on stage, but on film the story loses some of its immediacy.
There is an odd claustrophobia in a movie where 80 minutes or so take place in a single
office, and the entire script is a conversation. The film is shot like a staged play in many
ways, especially the framing; Eisenstadt and Macy move in and out of frame often, with the
camera rarely moving.
The MGM DVD release of Oleanna is disappointingly bare. The trailer is the only extra
on the disc, with a mono Spanish track and English, Spanish and French subtitles available.
Considering the film grossed less than $125,000 at the box office (according to the IMDB), no
one would have expected a two-disc special edition, but the evidence of some sort of
involvement by Mamet or Macy would have been nice. The transfer itself is clean, and the
audio is all it needs to be for a production that is two characters talking for 90 minutes.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 4, 2003
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson