Acting Analysis – Glengarry Glen Ross

This clip comes from the movie Glengarry Glen Ross, which is a play-turned-into-a-movie with an all-star cast. Also, the play and screenplay were both written by David Mamet, who wrote the book On Directing Film which I would highly recommend. But that’s another post entirely.

Before you click the link – a word of warning:
There is quite a bit of adult language in this clip. In fact, loud, screaming swear words in the first 2 seconds (included for a reason) so PUT ON HEADPHONES!

(direct link – right click and ‘save as’)
~37mb, quicktime

The Setup:

Jack Lemmon, Al Pacino, and Ed Harris are all salesman in this dying agency. Al Pacino’s the only one who can sell anything anymore, the other two are has-been’s. Jack Lemmon just (finally!) made a huge sale the night before, and is more than excited to share the story with Al Pacino. Half way thru telling Pacino how it happened, Ed Harris shows up, makes a HUGE scene (the ‘why’ and ‘what’ are irrelevant here) and storms away. This clip starts just as he’s on his way out the door, distracting Jack Lemmon from his story.

The Goodies:
There’s something for everyone in here, I’m sure. But for me, it’s the amazing entertainment value that Jack Lemmon gets out of (and/or because of) his acting choices.

My favorite part is the crumb cake at the beginning. It’s like I can practically read his mind.  I don’t mean, “I know what Jack Lemmon is going to do next,” but rather, “I know exactly what the character is thinking at each moment” – which is really what any actor tries to do for his audience, right? I think he succeeds beautifully.

Pacino: …c’mon, snap out of it.  you’re eating a crumb cake…
Lemmon: ..oh yea, I’m eating a crumb cake…

He says it, but he’s not in the moment yet. He’s still thinking about Ed Harris’s ruckus, which he shows us nicely by looking back where Harris used to be:

Also, did you notice before he said “oh yea,”  he waited until Pacino had finished moving past the camera?  Always know where your audience is looking! It’s beautiful. A lesser actor might have thought, “The other actor just told me to ‘snap out of it’ and also tapped my knee, I better jump outta this trance I’m supposed to be in – and quick, like I’m startled.” But Lemmon waits. There is no immediate reaction. He needs to wait until he’s back in view of the camera before he can let his character’s thoughts change.

He waits until he’s the focus again before he changes gears.

Know where your audience is looking when you change a character’s thoughts or emotions!

Pacino asks him “How was it?” to try to get him back into the moment again.  Lemmon looks back to Pacino, but didn’t hear the question. He was totally ready to say something else (his mouth puckered).  Suddenly he DOES hear the question. He must have replayed it in his head (I do that all the time).
His mouth relaxes, his eyes dart up and out, and his eyebrows raise the tiniest bit.  He’s thinking, “How WAS it?”

Everything scrunches up at the memory.  He didn’t think too highly of the crumb cake. Interesting note – the ‘big gap’ in spacing for the mouth, brows, and eyelids are all offset by one frame (at 24fps), and fire off in that order.

And like that he’s BACK into storytelling mode and loving every minute of it.

Overall throughout the whole clip you can tell, you can just TELL, that this guy is soooo enjoying telling this story. And also, how often does he hold (or go back to) that “holding out the pen” pose or the “pointing” pose (or variations of each)?  Could you get away with that in animation? I don’t know, but I think the story needs it. His character needs it. It’s like his story hangs on that alone – on holding out the pen.

My good friend Jim had some further analysis:

I really like Pacino’s reactions as well. He barely has anything to do in this scene, but it doesn’t seem like he’s slacking off. I can’t tell if he’s being completely genuine or if there’s an element of humoring the old man and his story, but regardless it feels like he’s really listening to Lemmon’s story:

And it’s interesting how Pacino mentions that Lemmon taught him but Pacino seems to be the one in control. He’s the one sitting, listening calmly (1:20 to 1:22, 1:55 to 2:01, 2:50 to 3:05), especially the way he’s sitting at the end. Really confident… and actually the part of the shot at the end with the most contrast, lighting-wise, is Pacino silhouetted by the super-bright floor. We look at Lemmon because he’s moving more and finishing up his story, but Pacino’s held pose is really strong:

Incidentally, the physical breakdown of Ed Harris’s movements at the beginning is cool. The head leads by several frames but doesn’t go much further, then the torso turns as one piece (none of this overlap the torso nonsense, he’s angry) with the shoulder leading, but again, the torso basically holds as the arm starts to come around. At frames 11 and 12 the only thing rotating is the arm and it snaps over in about 4 frames, and then the torso and the head follow through really quickly and he’s facing the camera.

Really interesting how the parts that start the move end up holding in the middle until the residual energy of the arm swing brings them all the way around. And then, his tie and briefcase in the other hand are the last to arrive. It’s also worth noting that the arc on his initial arm swing/point is terrible; almost totally flat and then it drops like a rock to his side.

His second arm swing has nice counter motion (the head rotates screen left as the arm anticipates screen right) and they reverse directions at pretty much the same time. This second motion has more of an arc to it, which makes sense because it’s a little slower than the first one. And then as he finally turns to leave, his head keeps staring at them for a few frames before he looks where he’s going.

Final note: the lighting is interesting, particularly in that Lemmon’s hands are often partially in the dark (and at times completely black) and yet we can still read his gestures well (“see it and take it” from frame 850 to 1000). It’s hard to imagine an animated shot that would end up with lighting that left the hands so hard to see. Maybe it just wouldn’t read as well.

Alright, that’s it for now. Maybe I’ll post more of these in the future.


  1. The commentary on dvd talked about on how they intended to give Pacino more power by offsetting from the rest of the characters. You see this in the early bar scene and later we see his desk against the wall facing the whole office. Really good analysis.

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