Michelle Danner on Vanity Fair: How the Glengarry Glen Ross “Coffee Is for Closers” Scene Got Made
Alec Baldwin, James Foley, Michelle Danner and more reveal an oral history of one of the most quotable movie scenes ever.
BY DONALD LIEBENSON OCTOBER 4, 2022
- Let me have your attention for a moment. So you’re talking about—what? You’re talking about, bitchin’ about that flick that tanked, some son of a bitch don’t want to make that fourth Star Trek sequel, and so forth. Let’s talk about something important:
This week marks the 30th anniversary of Glengarry Glen Ross, James Foley’s Oscar-nominated adaptation of David Mamet’s Pulitzer Prize–winning play about desperate, ethically challenged real estate salesmen whose jobs depend on how they fare in that month’s sales contest. New customer leads—“they’re gold”—might make the difference between whether they “close…or hit the bricks.”
Mamet was paid $1 million, which included a fee to adapt his play for the screen, The Washington Post reported at the time of the film’s release. The material—itself gold for an actor—attracted a peerless ensemble of character actors, including Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Ed Harris, and Alan Arkin as the salesmen, Kevin Spacey as the seedy real estate office’s manager, Jonathan Pryce as a prospective client, and Alec Baldwin, credited as Blake “from downtown,” who has come “on a mission of mercy” to motivate the sales office.
Director Howard Hawks has been credited with saying that a great film is “three good scenes and no bad ones.” By any definition, Glengarry Glen Ross is a great film with several memorable scenes, among them one set in a Chinese restaurant where Pacino’s hotshot salesman Ricky Roma tries to land Pryce (“When you die, you’re gonna regret the things you don’t do”).
But the scene for which the film is most remembered, and the one with which Glengarry Glen Ross is most associated—even though the scene isn’t even in the play—is Baldwin’s seven-minute toxic pep talk in which he tears Harris, Arkin, and especially Lemmon, several new ones.
Commonly known as the “Always Be Closing” scene, it is the film’s most quoted stretch. It is a staple of acting classes. It was hilariously parodied on Saturday Night Live. It’s so well-known that at a performance of the play, this reporter once overheard confused audience members asking one another where the scene was.
It took a lot to bring this now iconic sequence to life: brilliant writing, intuitive direction and camerawork, a career-best performance, and just the right set of “brass balls.” You think I’m fucking with you? I am not fucking with you. Baldwin, Foley, production designer Jane Musky, cinematographer Juan Ruiz-Anchía, casting director Bonnie Timmermann, acting teacher (and director in her own right) Michelle Danner, and comic Patton Oswalt, who has referenced the scene in his stand-up, spoke with Vanity Fair about how this iconic scene came together, and its cultural legacy since.
Oh, do I have your attention now? Then. Put. That. Coffee. Down—and read on.
James Foley, director of At Close Range and After Dark, My Sweet, saw Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross on Broadway. While he thought it was good, it didn’t impress him as much as seeing Lauren Bacall in the musical Applause. Then his agent called.
JAMES FOLEY (Director): He says that he also represents Al Pacino and Al would like to talk to me about some ideas he has. So, I’m thinking, Naah, fuck him. [Laughs] No, what I really said was, “Well, blow me down.” I said, “When does he want to meet?” And my agent said, “Well, he’s outside your house.” And in came not Michael Corleone, not Serpico, but a person with no connection to any of those characters. He’s a schlub who wears big baggy old clothes. He sits at my kitchen table with four scripts under his arm. And he mentions Glengarry. I [told him] I wasn’t blown away when I saw it, like, “I have to make the movie.” Al said that David added a thing that deepened it and expanded everything and made it much more of a reason to make a movie of it. I read it and totally agreed, loved the script compared to what I saw on Broadway.
ALEC BALDWIN (“Blake”): I said [to David Mamet], “You won the Pulitzer Prize for the play. Why do you feel the need [for this extra scene]?” I was curious. And he said he needed something to incentivize the salesmen, to ratchet up the pressure because they’re not people who are inclined to commit a crime. So he wrote that scene.
FOLEY: I don’t remember talking to any actor about Alec’s part except Alec. He had already done The Hunt for Red October. There was no audition. Alec’s name came up, and I said, “Perfect.” Alec said, “Great,” and we did it, which is so unusual.
BONNIE TIMMERMANN (Casting director): Did you ever see a movie called Miami Blues? Well, let’s go back to that movie, and let’s go back to some stage plays, let’s go back to the body of work. I was totally bonkers about Alec. He was a very handsome leading man. I was fascinated by him. He was quite mysterious. He gave you what he wanted to give you. He’s a favorite of mine.
PATTON OSWALT (Actor, author of Silver Screen Fiend): The choice of using Alec Baldwin; suddenly it’s the most handsome man in the world being so icy, so psychopathic, and kind of foreshadowing that the truly dangerous villains of the world aren’t the ugly hunched-over Dick Tracy villains. It’s such an iconic moment.
Baldwin’s scene is the audience’s first exposure to the low-rent offices of Premiere Properties. It was up to production designer Jane Musky to set the stage.
JANE MUSKY (Production designer): We figured there had been a lot of guys through this office. So, I wanted to be sure there was enough history with older elements so we knew this is an ongoing situation. We put up all these aspirational gung ho quotes. Nothing was brand new, for sure, except for a few things on their desks. It had to be comfortable enough because they spent all their lives at these desks.
FOLEY: It was interesting how their desks became their territory. We spent a lot of time deciding whose desk was where and what direction it was facing. It’s interesting that, in fact, Al’s desk is the only desk facing a different direction. Everyone else’s desk looks forward toward the office.
MUSKY: The chairs were important. Alan Arkin’s character was that kind of guy who would lean back in his chair, while Al’s character had more posture, so his chair was a little tighter. When it got around to setting up the guy’s desks, Jamie and I came up with what we thought would be a good pattern based on the way he thought he was going to block the scene. And then we dressed each salesman’s desk according to what I thought the character would be and then invited the cast to come for an afternoon and let us know how they felt about it. I remember Alan and Ed were fine with theirs. Al was the one who said to me that Ricky would have more locks on his drawers. He doesn’t trust anyone. There was a cleanliness he wanted across the top.
I didn’t talk to Alec too much. It would take away the surprise that he was invading their space. He should have nothing to do with that space. The only thing we spent time with him on were the brass balls (he uses as a prop when he asks, “You know what it takes to sell real estate?”) They were made for the film, so it was like trial and error. My prop master, Bobby [Robert] Griffon, really spent time with Alec. They had to be a certain weight. Do they clink enough? Are they easy enough to hold? The stage was set, like Shakespeare. Alec was in front of his audience.
Foley and company had three weeks of rehearsal for the film, something he says, “would be impossible now.”
BALDWIN: The question, I find, is how much of an actor is the character? How much of a performer? There’s a reality to the fact that some people are bolder, some people are more loquacious. Blake is pretty seamless in that way.
FOLEY: In terms of rehearsal with Alec, I had one day with him. He had the whole scene memorized. I said, why don’t we just read this and see what happens. And he got up in this room with me as the audience and he did this scene, and, I’m not exaggerating, I was never more positive in my life. I said, “Stop, it’s over. Rehearsal over. See you on set,” because what he did was exactly what he did in the movie. There was nothing to say because that came out of him organically.
BALDWIN:. Being so verbally and psychologically abusive to these guys was not something I was looking forward to. My recollection is that James said to me, “This is like Patton. He slaps the soldier in the tent—“You call yourself a soldier?” In my mind it was, “You call yourself a salesman?” I’m Patton in the medical tent and I need them to get out there and die on that hill. So, I’m here to slap not one, but all of them. When you are doing a scene, you have to say to yourself, Why is this person doing this? Does it make sense? What authorizes this person?
There is much more to this scene than Baldwin haranguing these guys for seven minutes. The camera must deftly follow him through the cramped office as he engages with each salesman. The scene’s choreography came out of rehearsals, where Baldwin worked closely with cinematographer Juan Ruiz-Anchía. The scene took about two days to shoot.
JUAN RUIZ-ANCHÍA (Cinematographer): The biggest challenge in filming this scene was establishing the office and where everybody was going to be sitting. It was important to shoot in front and in back of Alec Baldwin. On the front side, it was important to establish him, and the shots from behind were to establish him with the other characters physically. The scene had to be very exact. MOST POPULAR
MUSKY: I was a fly on the wall because Juan moves the camera a lot and I had to be sure that I had accommodated certain things to be sure the physical set worked well for the camera. The distance of the desks was fine-tuned by the actors. Because it was Mamet, you have to pace out his dialogue to make sure you get to that point where you’re at the next person’s desk to challenge them. They constantly fiddled with the distances between the desks.
FOLEY: When Alec is far away and Jack is pouring the coffee, and Jack has his back [to him] and Alec says, “Put that coffee down,” we didn’t plan it out that Jack would have his back to Alec. He was just pouring coffee. And Jack didn’t turn around immediately. His back responds first. You can see that when he turns around, he’s already been hit. The fact that they were as far from each other as they can be did not come out of some master plan. I’m not an actor. I don’t, as a director, sit down and decide how the actors act on what line when they turn around. That has to be discovered.
RUIZ-ANCHÍA: Filming was very straightforward. We talked technicalities about the shots I was going to do—from here to there and you have to hit those marks. Not too many takes. Alec Baldwin was very precise. He hit his marks.
Glengarry Glen Ross received lavish praise (The New York Times called it “a mordantly funny Death of a Salesman for the ’90s”), and Mamet himself said in a 2019 interview with Writing for Film that he would not change anything about the film. “I love that one,” he said. But the film was a hard sell with audiences. Foley recalls watching CNN during the film’s opening weekend and seeing a segment about two women who walked out of a screening because of the film’s language. The film was a box office disappointment, earning only $10.7 million. Pacino received the film’s only Oscar nomination, for best supporting actor.
Flash-forward 13 years. Foley, Glengarry long behind him, is watching Saturday Night Live. Baldwin is hosting. A sketch, “Glengarry Glen Christmas: Elf Motivation” is a pitch-perfect Christmas-themed parody of the scene (“Put that cocoa down,” Santa emissary Baldwin barks at an elf). It was Foley’s first indication that his film, and “Always Be Closing,” in particular, had become embedded in popular culture.
BALDWIN: People have asked me to do several forms of that scene. That said, Seth Meyers [who wrote the sketch] said to me, “I know you don’t like to send up that character, but just read this and tell me what you think.” I read it and I go, “I must admit that, of what has ever been submitted to me, this is the only one that’s really funny.”MOST POPULAR
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FOLEY: My first reaction was that Lorne Michaels had lost his mind. I was so positive that nobody would know (the movie). That was the first time that Glengarry, in my head, was no longer this failed movie. It’s only grown since then. I could go on Instagram right now and find new things referencing that scene.
Meanwhile, the monologue became a go-to audition piece for aspiring actors.
MICHELLE DANNER (Teacher, Michelle Danner Acting Studio): Many, many actors have brought in this monologue, or I have assigned it to them. It’s a great monologue, from my perspective as an acting teacher, to assign to aspiring actors, for them to take their power, to be assertive. I use it to illuminate job in character. In this case, it illuminates how good he is at his, and how he tries to wake everybody up and inspire them. It’s complex on many levels. There’s a lot of torture. It’s sadistic: “Here’s the Glengarry, Glen Ross leads, and you don’t get them.” It’s also a great example for actors on how to endow objects: “You drive a Hyundai and I drive a $100,000 BMW.”
OSWALT: As a character actor, the one thing that sticks with me with that scene is that Alec Baldwin is doing what a professional actor does: I’ve been hired for this scene, I’m going to do my best work within the context of this scene. Yeah, Alec Baldwin is amazing in this scene, but he’s also giving Jack Lemmon, Ed Harris, and Alan Arkin amazing stuff to react to. Imagine you’re Alec Baldwin, you’re still a relatively young actor, and you’re in a scene with Ed Harris, Jack Lemmon, and Alan fucking Arkin, and you’ve got to scream at them and make them quail and quiver. That’s insane!
BALDWIN: When you have people who are as admired and gifted and iconic as those people in that cast, my first task is to sweep that away. To be so caustic to Jack Lemmon, who I loved and wished I could have had another chance to work with, was not easy. I came in the second day and they were all gathered around and laughing, and as I came walking by, they stopped laughing. It was like Darth Vader walking down the corridor of the spaceship. They didn’t like my character. It was really hard. But at the same time, I realized, while I was doing it, it’s the old story: You are here to play the part.
OSWALT: Another thing that’s really striking about his character is he wants to get the fuck out of there. He can’t believe, “I have to waste 10 minutes of my time with these fucking losers.” That energy is very, very real. That’s another thing that makes his character so memorable and so captivating; this is a real human being with shit going on. What is his story?
As tense and cringeworthy as Glengarry Glen Ross is, the set was remarkably angst-free. MOST POPULAR
FOLEY: On every single motherfucking film, the root of friction is the script—“My character wouldn’t say that.” On this movie, nobody said that.
TIMMERMANN: It was not a big cast, but it was a glorious one. They all loved each other. I think if in casting you can bring actors together in that kind of atmosphere, you get a family.
MUSKY: There was never any drama. It was almost like doing rep theater. Everyone was very happy, especially the actors. They really had a lot of respect for each other. Jack is a wonderful piano player. He had a piano off to the side and in between a big scene change, he would go and play. It was just a dream. I remember Kevin had to come out of his office in the scene, and he and Alec worked out a bit of business. They were great to each other, just giving back as actors to each other.
TIMMERMANN: When people ask me, what is your favorite movie that you cast, I’m going to say Glengarry Glen Ross. Every time.
MUSKY: It’s one of my top three favorite jobs of all time, and I always watch it. I’m still enamored of these great actors.
FOLEY: For me, I think it’s a great film, and I don’t say that about everything I’ve made. It succeeds in its ambition.
BALDWIN: I’ll get “Coffee is for closers” and “Put that coffee down” [quoted back to me]. But for people who are fans of the movie and who live inside the sales community, they’ll walk up to me, shake my hand and say, “I’m from Mitch and Murray, I’m from downtown.”
FOLEY: I’ll tell you something that blew my mind. There’s this kid on YouTube—the Caped Informer— and he’s watching the movie for the first time and we’re watching him to see his reaction. To see his face light up as he’s watching Alec’s scene in 2022—fuck me. That guy is my hero.
BALDWIN: I love the movie. But I always fast-forward through that scene. I want to see the scene in the Chinese restaurant.