The title of Rebecca Miller’s Arthur Miller: Writer, is drawn from a riposte the famous American playwright and author made when asked how he wished to be remembered. The feature-length documentary represents his youngest daughter’s perspective on that life. While Miller fille engages in hagiography, she does so skillfully; this is an engaging portrait, replete with details that will be appreciated by biographers and writers, as well as audiences who continue to find meaning in the iconic dramatist’s work.
Screening this week at the New York Film Festival, the documentary is drawn from interviews the veteran filmmaker (Maggie’s Plan, The Private Lives of Pippa Lee) conducted of Arthur Miller (1915-2005) over the last 15 years of his life, and current interviews of his colleagues and friends, such as Mike Nichols and Tony Kushner. It features a well-edited mix of archival photos and video, as well as home movies. “Someone who lived a life that long and that deep as an artist,” Miller says, in an interview in her Greenwich Village office, “has a lot of wisdom to impart.” At times, the playwright does just that, speaking authoritatively about the creative life and, at other times, he addresses Miller as a father would, his voice shifting to an affectionate key.
New York City-born Arthur Miller is perhaps best-known for his iconic character, the traveling salesman Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman (1949). The play is about Loman’s decline into depression and madness after he is fired from the job he held for 36 years. Miller once said his father was the inspiration for Loman, although Nichols, who directed a 2012 revival of the play on Broadway, said the character was inspired by an uncle of the playwright. Miller’s father, Isidore, was a businessman who lost his money in the 1929 stock market crash. In the documentary, the playwright explains that is when the family took a “step down” and moved from Manhattan to Brooklyn, a remark that sparked laughter at the NYFF press screening. (The cost of Brooklyn real estate now rivals that of Manhattan.)
Like Death of a Salesman, several of the Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist’s plays were the basis of popular Hollywood films, including All My Sons (1947), The Crucible (1953), and A View From the Bridge (1955), the latter directed by friend Sidney Lumet. Miller also wrote the screenplay for John Huston’s The Misfits, that starred Marilyn Monroe, his second wife. The documentary devotes a good deal of screen time to that marriage, although Monroe herself gets short shrift. It is playwright Kushner’s quip that best explains the nature of Miller’s grief when Monroe died shortly after their divorce. He calls it Miller’s “narcissistic wound,” echoing the playwright’s expression of regret, that he could not save the actress. She died in 1962, a month before Miller fille was born to photographer and author Inge Morath, Miller’s third wife.
The filmmaker has written in as many genres as her father, having published two novels (The Private Lives of Pippa Lee and Jacob’s Folly), and produced and directed several of her own original screenplays. She adapted David Auburn’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Proof, for the screen (John Madden’s Proof, 2005), and was the producer on Damon Cardasis’s debut feature, Saturday Church (2017). Cardasis, who first organized the footage that became Arthur Miller: Writer, served as the documentary’s producer. Miller had 20,000 feet of film, 16 mm. and some Super 8, when she began the project; depending on the ratio of the film stocks, that represents a dozen or more hours of interviews with her father. She spent two years editing the documentary.
Some of the film’s most surprising footage was shot in Miller père’s woodshop, at the Roxbury, Connecticut home where Rebecca Miller spent her childhood. The playwright was a skilled carpenter who made a dining room table and other pieces of furniture for their home. “He was living a different life when I was a girl, a rural life, not an urban one,” Miller observes. “He had already climbed the ladder and was sheltering himself with his family. It was a completely different chapter in his life, so I definitely think that I knew a different person.”
The dramatist speaks about his friendship with Elia Kazan, recalling the day he told him that he would be a “friendly witness” at the House Committee on Un-American Activities. While it is not clear from the clip how Miller felt about that confession, he had already begun work on The Crucible, a play set during the era of the Salem witch trials that could be interpreted as an allegory for the McCarthy era. Miller’s turn before the HCUA came in 1957. At the time, the playwright was married to Monroe, who risked her own reputation by supporting his stance not to provide HCUA with the names of those he knew to be Communists. An interview recounts the story that Miller could have skipped his appearance had Monroe agreed to be photographed with a Committee official. She apparently refused.
More difficult matters, such as the institutionalization of Daniel Miller, Rebecca’s younger brother, born with Down’s Syndrome, is dispensed with rather quickly. David Arthur Miller, the playwright’s son from his first marriage, who produced The Crucible (1996) (from a screenplay by Miller père) only appears in archival footage. During production on that movie, the filmmaker met her husband Daniel Day-Lewis who starred in the film. Inge Morath (1923-2002), Rebecca’s mother, a gifted photographer, and co-author with Arthur Miller on three travel books, makes only one appearance in the documentary, in a brief clip with her husband. They were married for 40 years.
Among the memorable scenes in Arthur Miller: Writer is one in which the filmmaker asks her father about his way of work, and he replies that his plays always began with the creation of a character. It is the classic approach to drama, that of character as plot; Loman, for instance, remains an eloquent expression of aspects of the masculine psyche, his personality signalling the self-destruction at the core of the play. A week before her NYFF premier, Miller fille has watched her documentary with several audiences. “I don’t have any objectivity about this film yet, but I noticed that in the earlier footage, there is absolute certainty in what Arthur said, the kind of certainty that he needed to do his work,” she observes. “Later, it is not the same man. His questions are more mystical. I felt at the end that he didn’t come up with the answers.”
Arthur Miller: Writer might have been titled “Arthur Miller: Father” because of its intimate perspective on the playwright. “One of the strange things about the film for me is that phenomenon of getting to know Arthur,” Miller says. “Of course, there was the part that I knew I could deliver, the father I knew, but then there is the person who was there before you were born.” Miller wisely leaves the latter to the pundits who attest to the dramatist’s significance. Asked about Arthur Miller’s legacy to her as an artist, she replies: “Growing up with artists, my mother and father, they were workers,” she says. “I am a worker. I believe in that discipline. It’s almost like joining an order. You sign up as an artist and you give your life to it.”