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The Guy From Chicago Arrives : Joe Mantegna Is Having a Hollywood Dream Season

December 09, 1990|HILARY DE VRIES | Hilary de Vries is a Boston-based free-lance writer specializing in the arts.

HE IS, IN THE simplest terms, not a New Yorker. Reared in the shadow of Al Capone and schooled in Chicago-style realism, Joseph Anthony Mantegna is a counterpoint to the American tradition of celluloid heavies. Among the Brandos, Pacinos and De Niros, Mantegna is an actor's alternative to that brawling, Lower East Side Italian tough guy: a Pinteresque con man with a sharkskin suit and the soul of an ice pick.

He has located himself on the American cinematic consciousness with a series of small, sharply etched supporting roles in big silly movies--"Three Amigos!," "The Money Pit," "Suspect," "Compromising Positions" and "Weeds." But Mantegna has achieved his greatest distinction as an actor by playing alter ego to playwright and fellow Chicagoan David Mamet. In the dozen years that he has performed in the Pulitzer Prize-winner's dramas, Mantegna has become "The Guy"--the embodiment of Mamet's nasty-boy urban brotherhood whose Janus-faced ethos of deceit and loyalty is pounded out in scatological, syncopated riffs. Together, Mamet and Mantegna have created some of the most dazzling and despicable American male characters of the past decade.

Whether he is playing Ricky Roma, the cold-blooded real estate salesman of "Glengarry Glen Ross"--for which he won a 1984 Tony Award--or Bobby Gould, the perfidious Hollywood boss in the 1988 Broadway hit "Speed-the-Plow," or Mike Mancuso, the manipulative con artist in the film "House of Games," or even the bungling Mafia hit man in Mamet's comedy "Things Change," Mantegna is the new American huckster. It is a characterization more complex than the lead-with-the-fists psychopaths favored by director Martin Scorsese, one that has less to do with the spray of a tommy gun than the hurling of epithets with the reverence of Hail Marys. Mantegna has "a post-De Niro, post-Pacino acting style that strikes that balance between cynicism and idealism," says Jack Kroll, chief theater and movie critic of Newsweek. "Mantegna plays guys who've wised up enough to know it's all crap, but who can't leave it there."

Now, he is poised to take his post-modernist persona into a larger arena. He may not yet be a full-fledged star in Hollywood, but Mantegna is having the biggest year in his career. After jerking Hollywood's chain two years ago with his cutting performance in "Speed-the-Plow"--a role that was said to be based on former Paramount president Ned Tanen--Mantegna swiftly landed major roles in four films. This month, the actor opens in two of the most anticipated releases of the year--"Godfather III," Francis Ford Coppola's $50-million Mafia sequel, and "Alice," Woody Allen's new comedy. Both films are expected to increase not only Mantegna's visibility and asking price but also his reach as an actor.

Indeed, the two roles are a leap ahead for Mantegna, whose broad Chicago accent and patently ethnic look, just this side of handsome, have so far denied him real leading-man status. In "Alice," which also stars Mia Farrow and William Hurt, Mantegna plays a jazz musician and gives a rare good-guy performance as well as playing his first romantic role. In Coppola's saga, Mantegna takes his silkily minimalist malevolence up against Pacino's in one of the film's more pivotal roles, Joey Zasa, the powerful rival to the Pacino-led Corleone family. Already some critics are suggesting that "Godfather III" may make stars out of Mantegna and Andy Garcia the way the original "Godfather" films did for Pacino, James Caan and Robert Duvall.

It is exposure that has been long in coming for the low-key but intense 43-year-old whose first professional theater successes occurred more than two decades ago. The younger son of a widow who could only afford to send him to Morton Junior College, Mantegna grew up in Cicero, Ill.--a tough, blue-collar suburb whose infamous favorite son remains Al Capone. Mantegna's professional acting career began when he landed roles in the Chicago production of "Hair" and the lead in a Ragu spaghetti sauce advertising campaign. When he moved to Los Angeles in 1978, jobs for an ethnic character actor with few screen credits were so few and far between that he supported himself by running a small photography business--taking head shots of other actors.

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