Even sitting at a banquette in one corner of the nearly empty Knickerbocker Bar & Grill, an old-style grill in Greenwich Village, with his orange Perspex-framed glasses lying on the table in front of him, David Mamet is at work.
We have met at the Knickerbocker because he is in New York with his producer to scout locations for a film he has written and will direct for HBO about Phil Spector, the legendary music producer. "We call it a red-booth restaurant in the movie. This is close. It's oxblood," he says, prodding our leather-lined booth. "We'll have to dye it."
Spector, to be played by Al Pacino with Bette Midler as his lawyer, Linda Kenney Baden, was jailed for murder in 2008 after being convicted of the killing of Lana Clarkson, an actress, at his California mansion. "I don't think he's guilty. I definitely think there is reasonable doubt," Mamet says briskly when I ask what interested him about the case. "They should never have sent him away. Whether he did it or not, we'll never know but if he'd just been a regular citizen, they never would have indicted him."
The crisp certainty and rhetorical force makes Mamet sound like one of his characters. At the age of 63, with close-cropped gray hair and a beard, he is not only one of the most celebrated of American dramatists but one of the most prolific. From plays such as American Buffalo (1975), a Pinteresque drama about four petty thieves, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Glengarry Glen Ross (1982), an intense clash of competing property salesmen, to harrowing films such as The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981) and the Oscar-nominated courtroom drama The Verdict (1982), to novels and essays, he rarely rests.
There are signs of the advancing years—he has a hearing aid in one ear—but he has the nervous energy and edge of a younger man. He has greeted me warmly but seems a little isolated as he sits before me, as if the ideas jostling in his head leave little room for other voices to penetrate. He is dressed in artisan filmmaker style—white trousers, a gray linen shirt and a waistcoat with pockets into which are tucked some notes and a glasses case.
He recounts the restaurant scene from the film, which involves Midler's character. "Linda says, 'You've known your husband a long time. You know he's cheating on you.' The woman says, 'That's preposterous,' and Linda says, 'That's called giving him the benefit of the doubt.' The woman walks away and then she says, 'OK. But what are you going to do when he kills the next girl?' " Mamet chuckles. "It's a pretty good scene."
Confrontation is often present in Mamet's work, in which characters with opposing views argue with often unbearable intensity, trying to settle their differences by pounding each other's personalities. He thrives on provoking his audience and has now done so in real life by becoming a conservative and writing a book, The Secret Knowledge, that grinds into dust his erstwhile liberalism. Mamet's Damascene conversion from one side of the bitterly divided American political culture to the other, which he first announced in a 2008 article for the Village Voice headlined "Why I Am No Longer a Brain-Dead Liberal," shocked his fellow writers and artists.
"I saw things that horrified me in my own behavior, positions I'd taken that were foolish and absurd," he declares defiantly. I ask for an example. "Voting for big government. It has ruined our country as it ruined yours. As Churchill said, 'We fought the war and now our country is giving away everything we fought and died for.' California is broke, this country is broke, yet we keep on voting for it."
This peroration, delivered in a husky voice with traces of his native Chicago, is interrupted by the waitress. Mamet switches seamlessly to ordering his food in Hollywood manner—he now lives in the Brentwood district of Los Angeles with his four children, the younger two with his second wife, the Anglo-American actress Rebecca Pidgeon. "Filet mignon rare, and no mashed potatoes please, and no sauce please. I'll start off with the green salad with the balsamic vinegar on the side."
I ask whether anything in particular prompted his change of heart and he cites the 2007-08 film and television writers' strike and The Unit, a TV show that Mamet created and produced. "All of a sudden, the show was off the air and everyone was thrown out of work—the stagehands, the grips, the costume designers, all the people who worked 16 hours a day ... I realized I had been screwed by unions as much as I'd been helped by them."
The experience led him to start reading the work of free-market economists such as Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, and Adam Smith and philosophers such as John Stuart Mill and Thomas Hobbes. He also talked to Shelby Steele and Thomas Sowell, two conservative writers at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. "My dad was a labor lawyer and the ideas that I grew up with—bad management, bad capitalism, robber barons—when I applied this to my own life, I saw that we are all on both sides of the coin."
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