I went in to David Mamet’s Oleanna with no preconceived notions. I knew only that it had to do with the relationship between a male teacher and his female student. I assumed I was in for a scandalous romance or a Dead Poet’s Society-esque inspirational tale about the value of a great educator. What I found was a poignant and timely film about gender and power dynamics which left me deeply shaken. The play ran on the stage with William H. Macy and Rebecca Pidgeon before Pidgeon was replaced by Debra Eisenstadt for the remainder of the original stage run and the film. Audiences leaving showings of the play reportedly had strong reactions, getting into arguments in the lobby of the theater and voting on a blackboard for which character’s “side” they were on. Indeed it is a film which elicits a powerful reaction.
Oleanna’s plot spans three conversations between Macy’s John and Eisenstadt’s Carol. Carol originally goes to see John to voice her frustration with her failing grade in his class. She can’t understand his highly academic rhetoric and grows continually frustrated simply trying to converse with him. Immediately Mamet dives into his first political issue as Carol expresses her feeling that John’s way of speaking is elitist and prejudiced against students like herself who are not from affluent areas with great schools. As he seemingly disparages the idea that higher educations is something to which everyone should have access, she argues that financial disadvantage is the driving force behind her ill preparation for his class and that her hard work is what allowed her to be there at all.
Throughout their first meeting John insists his points. He behaves as if he is liberating Carol from the binds of her ideas about education and goes so far as to physically restrain her when she arrives at a state that he deems too emotional. He constantly closes his office door when she tries to leave, almost passive-aggressively imprisoning her. He lectures on free thought and the open exchange of ideas, but he resists any overt disagreement with his own philosophy.
The second act centers around Carol’s complaint to the tenure committee on whose decision John is waiting to finalize his purchase of a family home. He is angry about the extreme nature of her accusations and the first instinct of the audiences is to sympathize with him. Sure he acted somewhat inappropriately, but there was no clear indication of ill intent. It seemed as if he had been trying to help her, even if only for his own pompous validation. The feminist reading of the dynamic is to observe the contempt and even sexualization John directs at this young female student. At a glance it does not seem that he is behaving immorally, but in the behavior that he assumes is acceptable and with no awareness of the position of power from which he is acting, John becomes an incidental aggressor. John is perhaps a perfect embodiment of the sort of institutional, culturally instinctive sexism that may be more clear to audiences in the age of #MeToo.
I have so many feelings to voice about the film’s third act but I feel most strongly that it would be an injustice to spoil it here. Carol responds to John’s behavior and his physical manhandling of her at the conclusion of the second act in an authoritative and arguably extreme manner. Mamet challenges the audience’s ethics in wondering whether Carol’s response is truly proportionate. Likewise, John’s counter to this extreme action is nothing shy of disturbing. The whole final interaction between the two is tense and wildly upsetting.
Maybe I have failed to do justice to the morally ambiguous nature of the film. In my view this is a feminist film. In my view this is Mamet’s contemplation on toxic masculinity, an idea which has become a mainstream critique in 2018. In my view John bears a striking ideological resemblance to modern academics like Jordan B. Peterson and Sam Harris who argue from the pulpit of the free exchange of ideas but refuse to acknowledge that their platform has been granted to them in part because they are affluent white males. But there is another side here. In its day, audiences largely sided with John. They viewed Carol as a villain: a radical who deserved the horrific behavior of her male teacher in the film’s finale. There is no clear right or wrong answer to be identified here. This is a challenging film and one which is sure to leave you horrified, regardless of which side you identify with. However, I would argue that Mamet was approaching his female character with at least slightly more sympathy. John’s final outburst ends with what appears to be an epiphany: maybe even a realization that he is precisely the monster she accused him of being. The final shot of the film is of two male students playing catch. Why include this sequence? What is Mamet trying to tell us? Perhaps he just wants to underscore how internal the conflict between John and Carol is, but I would assert that with this simple shot, Mamet reminds us of just how much more difficult it can be to navigate the world of power dynamics as a vulnerable young woman.
Indicator Blu Ray Extras:
The Indicator release of the film contains two new interviews produced specifically for the release. In the first, William H. Macy reflects on his time working with and learning from David Mamet. He remembers the period fondly. His reflections on the film indicate his own struggles with the moral ambiguity of the characters. He describes an early period where he aligned exclusively with John, but discusses how re-reading the script opened him up to sympathizing with Carol and seeing how John’s behavior might be perceived as misogynistic. He also discusses the way that male audience members related to his character and even cheered his violent outburst against Carol in the film’s finale. His most interesting observation is on Mamet’s objectivity. He describes the screenplay not as one with an agenda and he outlines Mamet’s philosophy as one in which he merely tells a story and lets the audience interpret it.
The second interview is with costar Debra Eistenstadt who discusses the means by which she came to take over for Rebecca Pidgeon as the film’s female lead. She also delves into the difficult position of playing a character who, at the time, was viewed by many male viewers as morally reprehensible. She discusses her struggle with the response to her character in the play and film and she describes her journey beyond Oleanna as she moved behind the camera.
Finally, the limited edition blu ray contains a 32 page booklet. The booklet begins with an essay by Rebecca Nicole Williams written specifically for this release of the film in which Williams gives some background on Mamet’s career prior to Oleanna as well as some of the projects he completed afterwards. The essay progresses in chronology to the modern day, discussing Mamet’s upcoming project and delving into the modern political implications of Oleanna. It also provides some context on the play’s controversy as well as Williams’ own feelings on its feminist message. The booklet also includes some excerpts displaying critical responses to the film when it was released in 1994 and a series of responses to the political controversy at the heart of Oleanna. It is an excellent companion-piece which contextualizes the film in its own political environment and refreshes the message for the modern day.
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