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Oleanna

MGM Home Video

Starring William H. Macy and Debra Eisenstadt

Written and directed by David Mamet


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Review by Mark Bourne                    


David Mamet's 1992 two-character stage play Oleanna dramatized a power struggle between a university professor and a female student who accuses him of sexual harassment and rape. Controversial in its day (think Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill), it was presented as a furious probing of power politics, sexual harassment hysteria, ideological agendas, academia, the excesses of what is fatuously called "political correctness," and the sometimes dangerous ambiguities inherent in person-to-person — rather, male-to-female — communication. In the Mamet playlist it is a minor work, lacking focus and coming far short of the scalpel-blade clarity displayed in, say, Glengarry Glen Ross, but as a "hot button" piece it was incendiary enough that theatergoers left the playhouse raining verbal and physical blows on each other all the way to Sardi's. It may be Mamet's most reliable conversation-starter.

Whether or not the play successfully wrestled complex and heated issues, where it succeeded as a drama its faithful 1994 screen incarnation, directed by Mamet, fails. Perhaps what's missing is the electric presence of live actors in the flesh before us on a stage. Perhaps distancing the material one step further from the audience via a camera lens accentuates our suspicion that Mamet aims more to provoke than to illuminate, to instigate no-win arguments instead of constructive dialogue. Whatever the reason, Oleanna the movie feels like it was made in a rush, on the cheap, and to fulfill a contractual obligation. Gratingly heavy-handed from Mamet's script to Mamet's staid directing, it's a disappointment compared to his House of Games or Heist, which at least possessed the fall-back position of being intermittently entertaining.

William H. Macy is John (unnamed in the film), a college professor who meets with a student, Carol (Debra Eisenstadt), in his office to discuss her failing grade in his class. John is self-absorbed, pedantic, and patronizing. Hapless Carol is awkward, more than a little obtuse, and weak-willed. Their conversation — that is, their talking at instead of with each other — is halted repeatedly by telephone calls from John's wife to discuss an expensive new house they are trying to buy. Willfully distracted, John fails to listen to what Carol says to him. He lectures her with a monologue about pedagogy and his own childhood feelings regarding measuring up against arbitrary external norms (including a fifth-grader's story that wealthy people have sex less frequently than poor people, but take off more of their clothes). She grows only more agitated, and when he attempts to calm her by placing his hands on her shoulders, Carol storms out of the office angry and frustrated.

Days later, John invites Carol to his office again. This time, though, it's after she has approached his tenure committee to charge John with sexual harassment. She invokes an unnamed "group," presumably a campus organization of radical feminists, as supporters of her cause. What damns him is her report, which selectively quotes verbatim things he said during their previous conversation. Stripped of all context except that which she gives to them, the innocuous quotations "prove" that John regaled her with pornographic talk and that he offered to trade a higher grade for sexual favors. Unwilling to accept his apology for any misunderstanding, she asserts her newfound power and upbraids him for refusing to take responsibility for his sexist ways. He, meanwhile, can barely contain his outrage. He tries to force Carol to sit and hear what he has to say. She flees into the hallway, shouting for help, causing an inter-office spectacle.

Their third-act meeting sees John at loose ends. His job and personal life are hanging by a hair. He pleads with her, hoping she will see sense and recant her report. Instead, Carol has added attempted rape to her charges, and from there the situation flies irrevocably into the propeller blades of typically Mametian psychological and physical violence.

*          *          *

The play Oleanna was often criticized for an anti-feminist tone. There's no question that Mamet stacks the deck in John's favor, even if John is self-important and exhibits little we can hang our sympathy on. We know Carol's allegations are false, and she speaks only in the rote dialectics of a campus Student Center pamphleteer, so "the woman's point of view" is given to a dim girl who is either a vile manipulator or a deranged "empowered" cultist. There is no intellectual sparring because each combatant, in his or her own way, comes unarmed and unskilled for such a rumble. Carol is the script's fatally weak link. Her offscreen transformation from a mousy student to a fulminating, manifesto-spouting hysteric goes unexplained, a cheat on Mamet's part. Because we end up despising (for good reasons) both characters, what we're supposed to take away from Oleanna is perplexing. That ruinous false accusations of sexual harassment exist? That WASP men might suddenly explode with "inner male" primalness under pressure? That academia represents society's thin tissue of civilized behavior? All too pat and obvious, even for Mamet. That language is an inadequate means of human communication? If so, it would be ironic given this script's inadequacies as a vessel of clear expression, but in any case it's rendered moot by Carol's obvious defects as a human being, defects that also squash the notion that Oleanna is about the absence of Absolute Truth in a relativistic universe. Perhaps it's that vagueness can be passed off as, or mistaken for, complexity.

By its nature the script is talky, not that that's a bad thing when a writer has something engaging or enlightening to talk about, or when it's Mamet. His characteristically stylized, idiomatic language can carry layers of meaning delivered in high-impact lines like compact depleted-uranium shells of Mamet-speak. Macy is a model for Mamet actors, born for the music-like interruptions, repetitions, and pauses. He is far and away the best element on screen, although even he comes off flat and stilted. Eisenstadt, in her first screen role, is from frame one completely out of her depth. She had understudied the part of Carol when it was originally played on stage by Mamet's wife, Rebecca Pidgeon. When adapting Oleanna for film, Mamet had Pidgeon in mind to play Carol, but her pregnancy made a replacement necessary, so Eisenstadt took over the part. Looking uncomfortable with the translation from stage to screen, she is unable to naturalize the verbal tics and rhythms. She receives no help from the directing, editing, or even the poor lighting, so she drains energy from the already low-voltage film, contributing to its dreary pacing and stiff artificiality. (Pidgeon is here credited for the banal musical score.)

The worst offender is the author himself. Oleanna too often sounds like someone else's parody of Mamet, or a lesser writer trying with mixed success to "do" Mamet. This might have been only a minor hindrance if John and Carol were characters in any positive sense of the word. Instead they're garrulous abstractions temporarily given body and motion, as if Mamet has an action figure in each hand (Institutional Authority Man vs. Reactionary Deluded Bitchiness Girl) and is using them to voice his own inner acting-out while we foot the bill for his couch time. Whether or not Oleanna, on stage or screen, afforded a therapeutic catharsis for Mamet is unknown. Certainly for us watching the movie version this beating of dead hobbyhorses is murky, dreary, and irritating. "I don't understand" is the overt thesis repeated by both John and Carol; meanwhile we nod and check our watches, fully sympathetic.

Pointing back at its stage roots, we agree that Oleanna the movie is full of sound and fury, alright. But it signifies ... you know the rest.

*          *          *

MGM's DVD edition of Oleanna presents a good clean print and transfer (1.66:1, non-anamorphic), but is otherwise wholly unremarkable. The monaural DD 2.0 audio is likewise strong and clear without being anything special. The only "Special Feature" is the original theatrical trailer. MGM's disc lacks the featurette, stills gallery, and bios/filmographies found on the earlier Seville edition.

—Mark Bourne



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