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HBO Presents 'Arthur Miller: Writer' as Told by Rebecca Miller: Daughter
March 19, 2018  | By David Hinckley  | 1 comment

At first glance, you wouldn’t think Arthur Miller, one of the most successful American playwrights of the 20th century, would resemble his most famous character, Willy Loman from Death of a Salesman.

But there are those moments in Arthur Miller: Writer, a loving documentary made by his daughter Rebecca Miller and premiering Monday at 8 p.m. ET on HBO.

Built on many interviews Rebecca Miller conducted with her father in the 20 years before he died in 2005, the documentary largely lets him narrate his own story.

As such, it is not the biography others might write. His relationship with his second wife Marilyn Monroe, for instance, is portrayed here as Miller’s difficult and loving attempt to protect a troubled woman before ultimately admitting her demons could not be exorcised.

The relationship has been portrayed differently in other places, and Rebecca Miller explains upfront that her complex father has been painted in so many ways she felt one portrayal needed to stem from his voice.  

That voice comes across as serious and at times almost academic, eager to discuss big subjects like the role of art in our culture and the importance of the playwright in helping humankind understand itself.

His observations on those matters can shift with his mood. At times, he calls art timeless. At another point, after a string of his plays failed and drew increasingly harsh reviews that questioned whether he still had anything to say, he muses rather chillingly that “America’s closet is full of perfectly good clothes we can’t see ourselves wearing any more.”

Willy? Is that you?

After the acclaimed 1984 revival of Death of a Salesman with Dustin Hoffman sparked a resurrection of Miller’s other early work like A View From the Bridge, Miller waves it aside, saying, “It won’t last.”

Yes, Willy, that is you.

Still, this older Miller doesn’t come across as bitter or even particularly unhappy. He maintains his lifelong discipline by writing every day and coming up with new ideas, like a series of travel books with his third and final wife, the photographer Inga Morath.

Arthur Miller’s primary avocation, apparently, is making furniture, which we see him honing with considerable precision in a well-equipped barn on his Connecticut estate. Rebecca Miller (left, with her father) recalls that when she was a teenager and wanted a stereo system, he didn’t buy her the standard store system like all her friends had, but built one himself.

Arthur Miller: Writer spends a gratifying amount of time on the backstory of his childhood, including his father Izzie and his mother Gussie. She was a whirling dervish while his father, who emigrated unescorted from Poland at the age of 6, took pride in rising to great success in the clothing business.  

When Arthur was 12, the family was decimated by the Depression. Gussie’s ambivalence toward Izzie, with whom she had an arranged marriage, bubbled over at the same time and Izzie felt he had failed.  

Arthur Miller talks here about how much of his father’s story infused Death of a Salesman. He wanted to show the impact from being robbed of your dignity.

Arthur himself worked a number of jobs, like waiting tables in the Catskills and sorting auto parts, before he saved enough money to send himself to the University of Michigan, where he began writing plays.

His first New York show flopped. His second, about war profiteering and morality, put him on the map.

Soon thereafter, Salesman made him a star and, he admits, changed him. He liked the adulation, the attention, the fact women like Marilyn Monroe suddenly found him interesting.

One side effect of his relationship with Monroe, he notes wryly, is that he also became interesting to Congressional committees investigating communist influence in Hollywood (right).

Where before he was a small fish, now he was a headliner who could draw media attention. At one point, he says, a committee member offered to forego his testimony if this committee member could get a picture with Monroe.

Miller was eventually convicted of contempt of Congress for refusing to name names. But little of Rebecca Miller’s documentary touches on politics, which seemed to interest him less as the years went by. He did decline to attend a White House ceremony with President Lyndon Johnson because he found Johnson’s war policies troubling.

In the end, the title here provides the takeaway: Miller wanted his legacy to be what he wrote. Whatever the nuances of the man, some of which are seen here in ways they will not be seen elsewhere, that’s not a bad call.

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Always wanted to know more about Arthur Miller an incredible and talented writer !Had difficulty with hbo this evening, perhaps this documentary should be shown on regular TV time.
Mar 20, 2018   |  Reply
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