Far from a conventional biographical documentary, Arthur Miller: Writer, which had its world premiere in Telluride, offers a highly personal portrait of the American playwright who died in 2005. Rebecca Miller, herself an acclaimed filmmaker (Personal Velocity, Maggie’s Plan), is also Miller’s daughter by his third wife, photographer Inge Morath. Rebecca narrates the film herself and includes her own interviews with her father, which she filmed over the last 25 years of his life. As she says at the start of the film, she has been working on the project “almost my entire adult life.” The result is fascinating, often moving, if also incomplete. It will premiere on HBO next spring.
Although the film should be described as a personal essay rather than a comprehensive biography, it does fill in the important details of Arthur’s life. Rebecca accomplishes this with vintage photographs and excerpts from her father’s plays as well as his autobiography, Timebends, but she relies primarily on interviews with other family members — Arthur’s brother Kermit, sister Joan Copeland (an acclaimed actress), his two older children Robert and Jane — as well as with Arthur himself. He was a true child of the Depression, though his father had made a great deal of money in the garment industry, which all collapsed after the stock market crash of 1929. So the themes of business success and failure that informed Arthur’s greatest play, Death of a Salesman, as well as his later work, The Price (revived this year on Broadway with Mark Ruffalo, Tony Shalhoub and Danny DeVito), came from a deeply personal well of family experience.
Rebecca covers her father’s first two marriages, to Mary Slattery and Marilyn Monroe, as well as his conflicts with the House Un-American Activities Committee, which inspired his other indisputably great play, The Crucible. Rebecca interviews her father about his disappointment when his closest collaborator, director Elia Kazan, decided to cooperate with the Committee and name names. Arthur himself refused to answer the Committee’s questions about Communist friends and was cited for contempt. There’s a delicious interview with the playwright conducted outside the hearing room, when a TV reporter asks him about his testimony but then interjects, “Now the more important question, ‘Where’s Marilyn?’”
Arthur discusses the breakup of his second marriage during the filming of The Misfits, a project that he wrote for Monroe to demonstrate her dramatic gifts. He seemed to have found contentment in his third marriage to Morath, a German refugee whose mother had worked in a munitions factory in Berlin during the Nazi era. But that marriage also had its challenges. Rebecca has a younger brother who was born with Down’s syndrome and was sent to be raised in an institution rather than at home. In one of the most poignant sequences in the film, Rebecca says that she wanted to interview her father about her brother but kept putting the interview off because of the painful, highly charged subject. She never did get to address this issue with Arthur before his death.
In addition to the family interviews and archival material, the film does include new interviews with two luminaries — playwright Tony Kushner and the late director Mike Nichols (who staged the somewhat controversial 2012 revival of Salesman starring Philip Seymour Hoffman as Willy Loman). These interviews are revealing, but they also leave us wondering why Rebecca did not seek out a few more people who might have spoken incisively about her father. Since she veered from the purely personal approach to include material from these two celebrities, we wonder if other actors, directors, or historians might have added a bit more heft to the portrait.
There’s one other nagging question that surfaces in the later portions of the film (where some of the energy begins to sag). Arthur talks about the poor reception that greeted most of his later plays, at least in the U.S. (Some of them had more acclaim in Europe.) He kept writing until shortly before his death but never had another success during the last three decades of his life. One can’t help wondering whether this was because of the shortsightedness of critics and audiences or because of an undeniable decline in Miller’s writing. A bit more objective analysis would have strengthened this last section of the film. Nevertheless, for those who revere Arthur Miller’s best work, this film is an indispensable and deeply personal addition to an understanding of the artist and the man.