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."