Screenplay : David Mamet (based on his play)
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1994
Stars : William H. Macy (John), Debra Eisenstadt (Carol)
David Mamet's play-turned-film, "Oleanna," is about a number of things -- sexual harassment, higher education, the battle of the sexes, the role of the middle class -- but more than anything, it is about power. The film takes two characters, a pedantic liberal arts professor named John (William H. Macy) and a confused, female student named Carol (Debra Eisenstadt), and depicts their desire for power and what they are willing to do to maintain it (John) or gain it (Carol).
The film, which is based almost word-for-word on Mamet's 1992 play, transpires in three acts, all of which take place in John's office at an unnamed Ivy League school. When the film opens, Carol has come to John's office begging for his help because she is failing his class. She is flustered and confused and constantly tells him, "I don't understand." John, who is often interrupted by a ringing phone and thoughts about a house deal he and his wife are trying to close, attempts to explain to her where he is coming from, and what his views are on the educational system. Unfortunately, he is so steeped in academia and intellectualism that he cannot get a clear point across. When the meeting is finally over, not much seems to have been accomplished.
When the second act opens, we find John defending himself from unexpected charges by Carol of sexual harassment stemming from their meeting. Carol, now more sure of herself and getting support from a mysterious unnamed "group," has filed formal charges with the tenure committee that is meeting that afternoon. John is up for tenure, and he was banking on the increased salary to pay for his new house. Now, all of that is on the chopping block because of the formal allegations. Bear in mind, none of the allegations are lies, but they're not really true either. Everything in the report to the tenure committee happened, but it is all taken out of context and not seen in light of the underlying motivations. A hand on the shoulder, an anecdote about sex, a request that she come by his office more often -- all are misconstrued as offensive.
Herein lies the central aspect of "Oleanna" that I think many critics missed. Most people who didn't like this film claimed that it was too one-sided, that Carol was portrayed as Femi-Nazi bitch, while John was seen as a persecuted victim of pointless political correctness, whose worst crime was perhaps vanity and a patriarchal nature. While it is true that the film does feel stacked in John's corner, the issue at hand is that Carol truly believes that she is right. She's not doing it for revenge against John or insensitive men in general, but because she truly believes that she has been wronged, and that she deserves some of the power John wields so recklessly. That is why she comes off as so shrill and defensive. It is only in the third act, when she levels even more damaging and less credible charges against him, that her facial expression betrays that she might not be fully believe her own story.
In the power issue, both characters come off about the same. The only difference is that Carol has a better understanding of the basic nature of power. John has been enjoying his position as a teacher for so long, that he has neglected to address his underlying nature, which is essentially sexist and patriarchal. We can see the startled realization on his face when Carol points it out to him, but he doesn't see his failings as justification for the persecution he's receiving. On the other end, Carol vilifies him for his enjoyment of power, but she readily uses it for her own benefit. Her use of power is no better than his; in fact, it is probably worse because at least he's earned the right through years of scholarship.
"Oleanna" was also directed by Mamet, who has three previous directorial credits to his name. However, all of those were written expressly for the screen, while "Oleanna" is the first time he has directed one of his own plays on film. He shows little inventiveness in transferring stage to screen, probably because he didn't feel the need. The film's vitality lies in the power struggle between John and Carol, and how the haves becomes the have-nots and vice versa. Mamet and cinematographer Andrez Sekula ("Pulp Fiction") shot the film in dark hues and shadows, which lends an eerie effect to the proceedings, but it still comes off like a filmed played.
Both Macy, who originated the role of John on-stage, and newcomer Eisenstadt, are outstanding in their roles. The entirety of the film rests on their shoulders, and they work Mamet's verbose and sometimes obtuse dialogue for all it's worth. Both of them speak in the high language of academia, and sometimes it feels a bit stilted and unrealistic. Nevertheless, as the film moves forward, their verbal exchanges take on more rhythm and power as we begin to understand the characters better and where they're coming from. Except for a single shot of Macy at home alone, we never see these characters outside the setting of his office. Therefore, everything we know about them comes from what they say and how they say it.
"Oleanna" is not an easy film to digest, and I think that's why some critics lashed out against it. They were looking for an objectively balanced story where either side could be taken for right or wrong. The fact is, Mamet's script puts John in the right, but it doesn't matter because the film rightly points out that this situation has nothing to do with fact -- it's all about perceptions. Both John and Carol know exactly what happened in his office, and neither one of them lies about the essential facts. But, as Mamet clearly shows, their perceptions differ, and thus we have the central dilemma in sexual harassment cases: how far are we willing to let them go?
©1997 James Kendrick