How Jack Lemmon solved the Glengarry Glen Ross top billing problem

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Al Pacino takes top billing in 1992’s Glengarry Glen Ross, in spite of having a supporting role – and Jack Lemmon is in part to thank.

There are lots of reasons to love 1992’s Glengarry Glen Ross, the terrific film adaptation of David Mamet’s stage play. Mamet adapted the play for the screen himself, with James Foley directing (Foley, more recently, directed the last two Fifty Shades movies).

But what really also lifted it was the outstanding ensemble cast that the movie attracted.

The company of actors featured Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Alec Baldwin, Ed Harris, Alan Arkin and Jonathan Pryce. Kevin Spacey was in there too, but that’s every word I intend to write about him in this piece.

The film earned acclaim for a variety of reasons. Alec Baldwin’s opening blast remains rightly lauded, one of the finest cameo performances of the decade for American cinema. It’s a bit sweary – cough – if you’ve not seen it. Coffee’s for closers, chums…

But Baldwin was overlooked for awards attention where the movie was concerned. Instead, it was Al Pacino who picked up an Academy Award nomination for his role of Richard Roma in the movie. He earned two gong nods that year, and whilst he’d lose out to Gene Hackman in Unforgiven for this one, he’d take home Oscar gold for Scent Of A Woman at the same ceremony.

Pacino’s role, as the Oscar nomination suggests, is very much a supporting one in the film. The bulk of the heavy lifting is done by the late, great Jack Lemmon as fading salesman Shelley ‘The Machine’ Levene. And yet if you look at the poster, it’s Pacino that’s top-billed. Lemmon comes second, Baldwin third.

Clearly it was felt there was a commercial reason for doing this, that Pacino’s name first was likely to lead to more dollars. But a gesture of kindness from Lemmon was pivotal to that happening.

At the time, both Lemmon and Pacino were represented by the same company of agents, CAA. And as Lemmon explained to Premiere magazine back in November 1992, “Al and I are both with CAA, and when my agent called, he said ‘Jack, on the billing, are we going to have a problem?’”, given that the idea had been put forward for Pacino’s name to go first.

Lemmon’s response? “I said ‘hell no, put Al first’”. The reason? “You know, The Godfather and everything else, I couldn’t care less. Aside from which, I’m a huge fan. I love his work, I really do”.

And that’s how it came to pass that Lemmon took second billing for what had been his best film role in a decade. He would, as it happened, lose out to Pacino for Best Actor at the Oscars when Glengarry Glen Ross came around too (as it turned out, he wasn’t even nominated), but so modest was the man that it’s hard to imagine he gave two hoots about that either.

His performance in the film certainly endures, as of course does so much of his work, 18 years after we lost him. His modesty and generosity, I’d suggest, does as well.

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