Controversial when first debuted as a stage play, incendiary when turned into a film, David Mamet’s two-hander about a college professor who is accused of sexual harassment by a student is as relevant and potent as ever.
David Mamet is an enigma. Prolific, contentious, articulate and intelligent he has been writing plays, films, novels and essays for almost half a century. Lauded as the king of theatrical conversation both cut throat, witty, incisive and inflammatory, Mamet is revered for his contributions to drama. In conversation he comes across as a master of economy both in writing character, defining plot and building story. For him plot is everything and an overriding desire for his protagonists to get what they want drives story. This adaptation written by Mamet from his original stage play serves as a wordy if vaguely wooden introduction to that world.
Essentially a two-hander played out between William H. Macy and Deborah Eisenstadt as professor and student, it starts simply enough. She has come to his office to discuss reasons for a low grade on some coursework. He is due to meet his wife and an estate agent imminently and wants this dealt with quickly. In the simplest terms: she wants the grade changed, he wants to get home. That is what Mamet uses as a jumping off point for discussions on sexual relations, educational institutions, methods of approach to learning and the social pressures which come with that.
Divided into three distinct encounters, Macy and Eisenstadt voice their opinions, define their characters and work for resolution. Both are extremely dynamic within these roles and work hard with the dialogue provided. Dramatically the limitations of the minimal locations can make things feel a touch claustrophobic, but to a degree this works in its favour. Given the amount of ideas which are covered and the complexity of Mamet’s dialogue in making them feel grounded, it is advisable to watch Oleanna more than once. Empathy and point of view are everything in this adaptation as there are valid arguments on both sides which are not entirely gender dependent.
When Oleanna premiered on stage with William H Macy and Mamet’s wife Rebecca Pigeon, cast members were booed, fist fights broke out and anger was widespread. Interviewers have subsequently quizzed Mamet on personal agenda with regards to his work, but his responses when given have always been driven by story. As sexual politics, personal identity and declining educational standards continue to be relevant, Oleanna is now emblematic of something else. Character driven, unrelenting and constructed upon the foundations of strongly worded opinion, Oleanna may now represent a call to arms for the MeToo movement.
Written by Martin Carr
Directed by: David Mamet
Written by: David Mamet
Starring: William H. Macy, Debra Eisenstadt
Oleanna was released on Blu-ray in the UK by Powerhouse Films on August 20. The film received a high definition remaster and was accompanied by an assortment of new and archive additional features including 2018 interviews with William H. Macy and Debra Eistenstadt. For full details of the release, click here.