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Arthur Miller: Writer (2017)

Arthur Miller Writer Doc.jpg

Filmmaker Rebecca Miller’s documentary about her playwright father is a mesmerising portrait of one of the midcentury’s most important artistes and commentators, utilising home movies, letters, newsreel footage, and interviews she recorded with him and his siblings and her mother and Mike Nichols.  Excerpts of Miller’s recording of his autobiography Timebends are interspersed with Rebecca’s own voice to create a narrative. I.  Origins. I used to think that a play was about what was between the spoken lines. Growing up with a sub-literate fabric cutter Polish immigrant father and flamboyant, gifted mother, the young Arthur Miller was accustomed to wealth and comfort but that was all removed overnight with the Wall Street Crash when their circumstances were radically reduced. He worked in factories and read Dostoyevsky on the subway and his life was transformed. He wrote plays in college and married a midwestern Catholic democrat and his politics altered from communism to liberalism because he couldn’t see a place for the individual otherwise. She wanted an intellectual, a Jew, an artist. And I wanted America. That’s Miller not describing second wife Marilyn Monroe, but his first wife, Mary. Between the lines you get the sense that for him, relationships were somewhat transactional.  His daughter Jane recalls thinking that her conversations with him were material: There were times when he was only interested in something because he could use it. II. Broadway. I knew you were worse than most men, but I thought you were better. Mary was his toughest critic, his first play on Broadway was a failure but his second was All My Sons which he wrote in a wooden hut he built for himself. He wrote the first act during one night, the second in six weeks. Then he sat by the phone, waiting. Nichols states of the work that he believed burned out Miller, It’s so close to the tragedy. It’s so alive.  Miller met Elia Kazan and they formed a friendship or even brotherhood that weathered political storms. Kazan introduced him to his on-off lover Marilyn Monroe on the set of the 1951 film As Young as You Feel and Miller told her, I think you’re the saddest girl I ever met. He used the line in The Misfits a decade later when their five-year marriage was combusting. The big thing is not to make simple things complicated but to make complicated things comprehensible. III. PoliticsArt is long, life is short. I forgot the Latin. He says Kazan was the greatest theatre director of realistic material and was dismayed by his decision to name names but clarifies that it was the fault of the HUAC as well as the studio that said he would never make films again if he failed to do so. For Miller, the victims experience guilt – about other things. The guilt of the victim was interesting to me. That is the subject of the allegorical The Crucible, in which he memorialises Marilyn Monroe in the character of Abigail while his own wife is personified by John Proctor’s wife, Elizabeth. He met Monroe in 1951 and began an affair. When they married, he was pursued by HUAC and she posed for photographs with the Committee, helping expedite his suspended sentence while he felt he was reenacting his own play. Even the fascists have to be entertaining. IV. Home. Miller talks about writing on the verge of embarrassment, revealing things that are essentially secret, even in symbolic fashion. He describes to Mike Wallace his failure to create  significant work during the Monroe marriage with the throwaway line, I was taking care of her. He neglects to mention that she was paying his way and getting him writing jobs. However, he also declares, There’s no explaining a person like that. Terrible. Well.  He describes her as being in some ways the most repressed person imaginable. He wrote The Misfits in tribute to her, allegedly, but of course we know that he and John Huston and Eli Wallach conspired to turn her character into a prostitute and it was Gable who saved her from that indignity.  After the Fall in 1964 was crucified because it was such a direct attack on her, with Maggie her clear avatar, Quentin his. He was trying to make sense of the century’s most famous marriage.  Following her death he married Inge Morath, the Look photographer whose father was a Nazi. Miller’s children from his first marriage say Morath made the Connecticut house (that Monroe bought for him) into a home. Do you think Dad had a weak spot for being adored? Rebecca asks his siblings about his marriages. It’s rhetorical.  V. Out of Place. Other than The Price, the Sixties were not happy years for the playwright and the Seventies were downright barren not due to his output but due to the brutal critical reception in the US. Abroad, he was still admired.  He had few friends. He was a very different man at home to the man interviewed on talk shows. It took Dustin Hoffman’s 1985 revival of Death of a Salesman for Miller’s stock to rise again. Rebecca’s younger brother was born in the mid Sixties with Down’s Syndrome and the Millers had him institutionalised. Miller did not acknowledge his existence or even visit him until he was an adult, leaving all that to his wife. Rebecca intended interviewing her father about this but never got around to it while he was alive. He says to his daughter that sons have it harder because there is an element of competition with the father. His older son Bobby produced the film version of The Crucible that introduced Rebecca to her husband, Daniel Day-Lewis.  Teasing the man she knew from the man perceived in the wider world is what this film does best even if it’s limited by their relationship and the lack of emphasis on the content and style of his playwriting. Children create these definitions, says Miller. They have to.  When asked what he wanted in his obituary, Miller responded, Writer.

About elainelennon

An occasional movie-watching diary.

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