OLEANNA, David Mamet's treatise on sexual harassment and gender relations, is much more interesting to discuss than to sit through. Despite the provocative topic, Mamet's filmed adaptation of his controversial play proves a failure on screen.
John (William H. Macy), a professor at an unnamed college in the northeastern US, agrees to meet with Carol (Debra Eisenstadt), his student, for a conference about her class grade. Carol awkwardly explains to John that she doesn't understand his book and lectures, but their conversation is
repeatedly interrupted by phone calls from John's wife, who is anxious about closing the purchase of their new house. John shows some interest in helping his student to understand the course material, but he's arrogant and supercilious, and clearly enjoys having her academic fate in his hands.
Late in the meeting, John tries to calm the anxious Carol by placing his hands on her shoulders--an act that is simultaneously a gesture of affection and an assertion of authority. Carol leaves the meeting angry and dissatisfied.
A few days later, John invites Carol back to his office. Since their last encounter, Carol has made a charge of sexual harassment to the faculty committee considering John's bid for tenure. (She's supported in her campaign by a mysterious "group," implicitly a campus organization of radical
feminists.) Her report to the committee includes verbatim quotes from their earlier conversation; lifted out of context, John's words suggest that he offered her a better grade in exchange for sexual favors. John is outraged by her charges, but he apologizes to Carol in order to retain both his
faculty position and his expensive new home. Carol denounces John for attempting to clear his name instead of accepting responsibility for his sexist behavior. John, close to losing control, tries to physically force Carol to sit and listen to his arguments, but Carol flees, bursting out of the
office in full view of several faculty members.
A few days later, John invites Carol back to his office one more time. Now facing dismissal, John tries to convince Carol to recant her testimony to the committee. But Carol counters with a list of demands, including the removal of his own textbook from the library and class curriculum. The
latter ultimatum offends John so much that he drops his pose of humility. When John learns that Carol has added an additional claim of attempted rape to the committee report since their last meeting, he becomes furious and orders her to leave. Moments later, after Carol chastises him for calling
his wife "baby" during a phone conversation, John explodes. He strikes Carol, knocking her to the ground, and then recoils at what he has done.
In OLEANNA, director-writer David Mamet raises interesting and important questions about the issue of sexual harassment, but his answers are too glib. Like its source, a 1992 stage play (and that other, bigger 1994 film on the same issue, DISCLOSURE), OLEANNA aims at provocation instead of
analysis. Initially, the film acknowledges--and to some extent critiques--the institutional authority by which professors are empowered to make or break student's academic careers (and subsequent lives). Carol comes across as a weak, manipulable young woman who learns to exploit "political
correctness" in order to shift an unequal balance of power in her favor. Her charge of attempted rape, however, effectively invalidates all her other charges--some of which are substantial--while the often pompous and patronizing John only becomes truly abusive after Carol has ruined him. The
presentation creates an ideological imbalance that favors the male point of view, making a mockery of typical real-life cases of sexual harassment.
The problem is exacerbated by Debra Eisenstadt's feeble performance: stymied by the sprung rhythms of Mamet's stylized dialogue, she's unable to elicit sympathy for her character, who remains a tongue-tied, inscrutable waif; meanwhile, her fumbling delivery seems to throw Macy (who handled the
material with aplomb on stage) off his timing. As a result, OLEANNA features some of the most incoherent on-screen exchanges since Mickey Rourke fenced with Matt Dillon in RUMBLE FISH. The other production elements, including the lighting, camerawork, set design, and music (by Mamet's wife,
Rebecca Pidgeon, who played Carol on the New York stage), also fail to impress. Attempts to "open up" the play by adding scenes outside the classroom set seem forced in their sketchy brevity. As a piece of theater, OLEANNA's stylized dialogue and strict three-act schematic structure probably
worked in the drama's favor; but on film, the techniques are jarring within the naturalistic settings. Mamet, who has written and directed three previous films, should have known better than to preserve the excessively theatrical aspects of his material. (Violence, adult situations, profanity.)
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- Released: 1994
- Rating: NR
- Review: OLEANNA, David Mamet's treatise on sexual harassment and gender relations, is much more interesting to discuss than to sit through. Despite the provocative topic, Mamet's filmed adaptation of his controversial play proves a failure on screen. John (Will… (more)