Maybe it was David Mamet‘s script. Maybe it was Jason Reitman‘s casting. Most likely it was a combination of both, but the latest live read at Los Angeles County Museum of Art was the stuff of legend. Six women – Mae Whitman, Carla Gugino, Robin Wright, Catherine O’Hara, Melanie Lynskey and Maria Belloreading the screenplay for Glengarry Glen Ross was the perfect mix of material, personality, chemistry, and energy. Add a certain je ne sais quoi, and the great script and event concept became something truly special.

Presented as part of the Film Independent at LACMA Film Series, the Glengarry Glen Ross live read was, unfortunately, a one-time-only event. But below, I’ll do my best to explain how each actress expertly inhabited their character, simply sitting on a stage with a script and a music stand.

Note: During the reading, all the actresses read Mamet’s script as is, without changing the gender of the characters. So, below I largely use male pronouns to describe them. Also, for photos from the event, check out WireImage.

Robin Wright played Ricky Roma, Al Pacino’s role in James Foley’s 1992 film. Roma is the top salesman in the company, a seller who has a strong, intimidating line of bullshit and a very unique perspective on life. What’s interesting about the role is that, though introduced early in the script, Roma doesn’t become a focal point until the second half. What that did was let Wright soak in the ambiance. She was loving everything going on around her, laughing, helping O’Hara when she dropped her highlighter. But when Roma finally walks into that office, Wright was on point. Her reading exuded confidence. Oozed it. She was so into the character that she regularly stepped over Reitman who reads the stage notes. Even so, she delivered Mamet’s dialogue like a machine gun. Like someone who’d performed the part a million times. It was fantastic.

Catherine O’Hara was Shelley Levene, arguably the main character, originally played in the film by Jack Lemmon. Reitman cast all these roles incredibly well but this one was by far his best choice. Levene is an older has-been, a desperate salesman with a sick daughter. For Levene, this job could literally mean life or death. And though he used to be top-dog, he’s long since lost his swagger.  So the character has to be totally pathetic, frightened but with an under current of confidence and style. In achieving this, O’Hara was brilliant. Every line of dialogue was natural, effective and worked on all those levels. She also brought a strong sense of comic timing, not unlike Lemmon, which helps you side with this character.  Even though it was just a reading, this was a character O’Hara was born to play.

Maria Bello was Dave Moss, who Ed Harris played in the film. Moss is fed up. He’s uptight, upset and on the edge of despair. But he’s still young, dumb and blinded by the power of potential. So too was Bello’s performance. She was confident. Loud. Animated. But, somehow, you never quite believed anything she was saying. I sat there transfixed by the way her over the top performance worked on a subtle level. While Ed Harris played the role in the film, I kept seeing Bello more like Kevin Spacey in American Beauty. It was that kind of nuanced performance. In fact, she was so into it, several of her line readings were totally missed because she was talking to her fellow actress and not into the mike.

For the role of George Aaronow, played by Alan Arkin in the film, Reitman originally cast Allison Janney but she had to drop out. He replaced her with Melanie Lynskey and, I think, actually improved his casting. As fantastic as Janney is, she’s best when she’s an A-personality. That’s not Aaronow. He’s a quiet, sweet, humble man who happens to sit around and let the boisterous men around him talk up a storm. Lynskey went way understated with her performance. Half her dialogue is just partial words and grunts while Moss pontificates but Lynskey’s comic timing and sweetness shined through. It’s amazing to think she’s never worked with Bello before because the two have uncanny chemistry. Again, it was as if they’d been performing these two roles every single day for months.

Mae Whitman played John Williamson, Kevin Spacey’s role in the film. Whitman was the highlight when Reitman staged Ghostbusters (she played Janine) and this time, even stacked up against this murderers row of actresses, it was no different. Williamson is a company man. A blank slate. He’s not there for any real reason except to hand leads to his salesman and file their closings. Whitman’s performance, though, was much more than that. She gave it humanity. Grace. She made you sympathize for the “bad guy” of the group, but then immediately hate him the next second. The way she deviated from calm to screaming and back was uncanny and fantastic.

Last, but certainly not least, was Carla Gugino. Gugino played two equal sized roles, the more famous being Blake, Alec Baldwin’s role in the film. Blake is the superstar, livin large, big house, five cars kind of guy. He comes in to whip everyone into shape and set the movie on its way. His monologue, which includes such classic lines as “Coffee is for closers” and “Always be closing,” is one of the best in history. And Gugino killed it. She had total confidence, much like Wright, but with an F-You attitude that made you want to punch her in the face. The timing of her interactions were spot on and the whole thing was just wonderful.

Gugino also played James Lingk (originated by Jonathan Pryce), a man who has made a deal with Roma but comes back to cancel. It’s a small role, but an important one, and Gugino physically changed her posture for it. She made herself tiny, bringing in her shoulders and scrounging her face to deliver the pathetic, meek performance of Lingk, a man who has to cancel the deal because his wife told him so. The two roles together once again illustrated Gugino is a wonderful, underrated, actress.

What it all boils down to is this: Yes, Mamet’s script is perfect. Yes, Reitman’s casting was spot on. And no, it didn’t matter that the roles were written for men. Each character is so well-defined that, with the right actor (or actress) all of the intent and story shines though beautifully. Like any great movie, this was a collaborative experience enhanced by the work of the whole.

It was another great night at the Jason Reitman Live Read. Reitman’s final live read of the season is March 21 and tickets will go on sale February 28 to Film Independent, LACMA Film Club, and The New York Times Film Club members. The rest go on sale March 5. Click here for info.

 

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