There are many wonderful scenes in the film version of David Mamet’s play Glengarry Glen Ross, but my favourite comes towards the end, between the broken and desperate real estate salesman Shelley ‘The Machine’ Levene, played by Jack Lemmon, and his vile manager John Williamson, played by Kevin Spacey. Levene, facing not merely the sack but probable imprisonment, is pleading for help, cringing and cowering. But he has gone to the wrong man. When he asks Williamson why he won’t help, the manager replies with a magnificent finality: ‘Because I don’t like you.’ And Spacey’s face, almost deadpan for most of the film as he suffers the abuse thrown at him by his salesmen, is now writhed in contempt.
But not just contempt — contempt tinged with the slightest suggestion of pleasure and malice. He is, in that moment, every grim, devious, self-serving middle manager you’ve ever loathed in your life. The middle manager from the Milgram experiment, turning up the voltage on the dial and electrocuting the volunteers. And so by obvious extension the middle manager at Auschwitz who was ‘only following orders’. You watch that scene and you recoil.
There is not a bad performance in the film from anyone. I would happily watch the brilliant Ed Harris read out a telephone directory; Al Pacino is at the height of his game; and there’s even a rather decent cameo from Alec Baldwin, not to mention Lemmon’s typically affecting swan song. But it’s Spacey who steals the film. Understated, thoughtful, utterly within the pallid skin of his character. But then Spacey often steals films, doesn’t he? Have you seen many better performances over the past 30 years than Spacey’s in The Usual Suspects? He is probably the best actor Hollywood has. Or had.
It is also quite possible that if he sat down next to you on a park bench he would withdraw his penis and ask you to admire its length and girth.