With Oleanna, director David Mamet created a film that would play very differently now. It was originally a controversial play, also written by Mamet. At that time he was the hottest playwright in the US and had moved into film work. He had directed Things Change, House of Games and Homicide, and had written a number of scripts (The Untouchables, Hoffa) and of course James Foley’s Glengarry Glen Ross was an adaptation of his work.
The play caused quite a stir when it opened, and ran for a long time. William H. Macy, one of Mamet’s go-to actors starred alongside Rebecca Pigeon, but for the film Pigeon was replaced by her theatrical understudy, Debra Eisenstadt. It’s a two-hander centred on a professor, John, and a student, Carol, who is failing his course. Eventually Carol accuses him of sexual harassment, although its never certain what did or did not happen.
The play was sometimes followed by screaming matches between couples. If it came out today, the professor would probably be assumed to be in the wrong, whereas at the time, most viewers thought the student was making a malicious complaint. What makes it interesting is that there is no clear answer.
These days Mamet has become extremely right wing, and this taints some of the work that he did earlier on. Unlike the two films he directed earlier, which had plenty of characters and atmosphere, Oleanna is kind of stagey. That was deliberate: a film centred on two characters is really hard to make. My Dinner With Andre and Moon are notable exceptions. Almost the whole 90-minute film takes place in the professor’s office. The leads had already been touring with the play for about two years.
Mamet is someone who can overwrite at times, and that is on show here. The dialogue is a bit too flowery sometimes, in contrast to Glengarry Glen Ross, where the dialogue is heightened and which also mostly takes place in a closed environment, but where visual techniques are used to address the potential shortcomings.
Of course, Macy is great—he’s never given a bad performance in his life, even in a crap film. Eisenstadt, who later became a director and producer, also definitely holds her own. Her take on it was that Carol had borderline personality disorder.
In the current #MeToo environment, Oleanna probably wouldn’t even be made. Mamet himself stopped a production of the play where the leads were played by two men, so he would not be amenable to any changes. Somewhat amusingly, his next work will be about Harvey Weinstein! It certainly raises questions about sexual harassment and guilt, and it’s a film that’s worth revisiting.
The disc includes interviews with the actors, who reflect on the difference between performing it on stage and in front of the camera. There are also trailers and a booklet covering the controversy around the play and film, and an overview of critical opinion.