The title of the book written by Lindsay Crouse’s character, the ambitious psychotherapist Margaret Ford, in David Mamet’s House of Games, is Driven: Obsession and Compulsion in Everyday Life, and when we’re first introduced to it, it’s in the hands of a young woman who approaches Dr. Ford in an urban plaza, urgently calling her name. It turns out she only wants an autograph, but the short scene dramatizes, in the imbalance of the characters’ intensity, the power dynamic that underlies Dr. Ford’s theme: the young woman is driven, obsessive, needy; the doctor is calmly aware of this and gives her the minimum of what she wants without relinquishing anything of herself in return. “Thank you. Goodbye,” she says slowly, enunciating each word with crisp precision. The rhythm of the scene is uncannily deliberate, paced by Dr. Ford’s unhurried command. Her words seem pre-chosen, practiced, and delivered to produce a specific effect.
In House of Games, we are never not aware that the words being spoken are words that have been written, that there’s an invisible mover that has arranged them just so. This is Mamet’s unapologetic aim; the style of acting that demonstrates it is perhaps the most controversial element of the playwright-turned-filmmaker’s textually driven aesthetic. Acting in Mamet movies has been called cold and distant, and nowhere is this description more apt than in Crouse’s first scenes in House of Games. But to deride this is to miss the point. It’s a direct effect of Mamet’s well-articulated theory of acting, which holds that neither emotion nor even the collection of psychological traits, physical behaviors, and narrative arcs that make up what we call “character” is to be intentionally produced by the actor; instead, actors are to focus only on the specific action that drives their character in the scene at hand. These actions must be simple and direct—“I want to comfort him,” “I want her to believe me”––and the behavior of the character in the scene must be entirely devoted to achieving these goals. And the test of the achievement must be in the other actor’s responses––and so actors in Mamet movies scour each other’s faces for signs of how their efforts are being received. It’s the intensity of their looks, coupled with the subtlety of their facial expressions, slightly exaggerated enunciation of their speech, and low level of intonation in their voices, that gives Mamet actors the somewhat hollow but also shrewd demeanor of people who are going to get what they want no matter the cost.
What’s brilliant about House of Games is that this performance aesthetic is thematized in the film’s narrative. Even before the revelation of the “long con” that underlies the film, the way the actors speak with a hint of remove from the lines, and Mamet’s feisty use of genre clichés, suggest the characters’ slight cynicism about their own credibility. We don’t quite trust them; they don’t quite trust themselves. On Joe Mantegna, this cynicism comes off as sexy and louche; on Crouse, it reads first as defensive and closed off but changes over the course of the film as the turn of the plot impels Dr. Ford first to confront both the pleasure and agony of losing control and then to violently retake it. Crouse’s sculpted face never crumples––at her lowest moment, she simply squeezes her eyes––and she accomplishes the shift from innocent severity to knowing perversity by the subtlest of vocal inflections, tones of sarcasm that enter the upper register of her voice, most spectacularly in the film’s climactic scene.
If Crouse’s performance is unsettling in ways that others in the film are not, it may have everything to do with our expectations for female behavior in the movies. Mamet actors as a rule are extremely uningratiating, but this near-total absence of appeal to the audience’s sympathy plays differently on women, whom we’re trained to read for signs of care and judge harshly when they fail to proffer them, than it does on men. Crouse’s performance has been described as monotone, robotic; her “unflattering,” “mannish” outfits are often noted. Mamet’s film, to be sure, invites this reading: in fact, it’s the reading of Mike the conman, who chooses her for a mark on exactly those grounds (she’s repressed, sexually frustrated, longing for a man to “possess” her). But by the end of the film, we’ve been taught to be suspicious of Mike’s reading, not because he’s wrong, exactly, but because of what he hasn’t accounted for: her desire to let someone else take over is secondary to her desire to assert herself. And this is the aim that wins out. So is this an ugly parable about feminism––a successful single woman needs an exciting man from the wrong side of the tracks to show her how to be bad––or is it just the opposite: the story of a woman taking revenge on a man for marking her that way? “I can’t help it, I’m out of control,” she tells Mike, her voice pitched up with a shade of mock-innocent glee, after shooting him.
House of Games, in fact, has a significant feminist subtext that has regularly been ignored, just as it’s rarely remarked on that the first three scenes in the film are between Dr. Ford and other women: first the autograph-seeker; then her patient, a “murderess” she visits in a prison hospital; then her friend and mentor Maria, an elderly, sweet-faced doctor (the Austrian stage actress Lilia Skala). Unusually for Mamet, House of Games unfolds in two distinctly gendered realms (rather than one decidedly male): the female world of the hospital and medical school, and the male world of the gambling den and bar. Dr. Ford may worry that her profession is a con, but it’s not a view shared by the film: Maria is clearly its moral center. Moreover, although it may be Mike’s manipulation that catalyzes Dr. Ford’s self-assertion, it’s worth noting that she identifies with her murderess patient from the beginning. Recounting her patient’s history, she issues an on-the-nose Freudian slip: “My father tells her she’s a whore––.” At the end of the film, it’s Mike who spits that she’s a whore, and she becomes the murderess, triumphantly. She’s visibly happier, in the film’s final scene, than she has been in any others: smiling, colorfully dressed, sipping a fruity cocktail, but also still Dr. Ford, graciously signing another autograph (this time, for a pathetic-seeming man) with her mentor’s advice, “Forgive yourself.” If there’s another on-the-nose Freudian reading here, it’s a strikingly patricidal one: to release yourself from guilt (or the guilt-inflicting superego), you might just have to kill the father.
Crouse’s scenes in and around the hospital, with her patient and her mentor, reveal the heart of her performance, and belie its characterization as cold and robotic; in fact, it’s just after an emotional session with her patient, whom she spontaneously embraces, that Dr. Ford confesses to Maria that she no longer believes in what she’s doing. Here Crouse’s measured enunciation commingles with a tense urgency. Her focus never wavers, but as her tempo quickens and her voice rises, it’s that very focused certainty that gives her away: she can’t help but speak the truth of her distress.