Arthur Miller’s relevance as a playwright appears in no danger of diminishing. Only two years ago, for instance, an innovative production of his A View From the Bridge won a Tony Award for Best Revival of a play.
If his reputation as an artist, thinker and person needed any further burnishing, it is amply supplied in the new documentary Arthur Miller: Writer, directed by his daughter, filmmaker Rebecca Miller. The elder Miller comes across as wise, open and funny in the film based on revealing interviews the director did with her father more than 20 years ago (Arthur Miller died in 2005 at the age of 89).
Arthur Miller: Writer is not a dewy-eyed “love letter to dad,” but an unsentimental portrait of a man and his times—early hardscrabble days in New York, his resounding success in the late 1940s with Death of a Salesman, the McCarthy-era witch hunt of the ’50s and more. As Rebecca put it at a recent public screening in LA, it’s “about perseverance and just trying to be a decent human being, even if you’re a flawed person, just trying to do your best.”
Rebecca—Miller’s daughter by his third wife, the late photographer Inge Morath—spoke with Deadline as she was preparing for Thanksgiving dinner with her family in Connecticut. Arthur Miller: Writer opens theatrically in New York and LA on December 8, in a qualifying run for Oscar consideration. It debuts on HBO in March.
What made you decide to do the film now, and not closer to when you recorded the interviews with your father in the ’90s?
It was a combination of reasons. One thing was that I needed some emotional distance. When my father was still alive, I was still really developing as a filmmaker and I was trying to find my own voice as a storyteller. And I didn’t have the kind of mental space and the perspective. Also, it would have been quite difficult to make this film with him alive—not that I don’t think he would have liked it. I actually do think he would have liked it, but I wouldn’t have felt the same level of freedom. Then, after he died in 2005, it just would have been emotionally too difficult for me. This was really the time where I felt like I had developed enough as a storyteller and I had enough of my own work behind me that I was ready to tackle this subject. And I had enough emotional distance.
Tell me about your decision to structure the film around the key relationships in his life—with his parents and his spouses.
I felt like each of these figures—the father and the mother and then the three wives—really were almost like cones of light shed on the different eras of his life. They informed those eras and really helped to form him as a person.
In his lifetime, Arthur Miller became a major public figure and public intellectual, frequently interviewed for his thoughts on important topics. How different from that public figure was the man you knew, the one we see at home—relaxed, contentedly making furniture in his wood shop?
How different was he? Well, he was very different…In public I felt [he was] really not himself as I knew him. Of course, there’s always different selves, and the self that a child knows is just one of many selves. I think [of] him at home, and him even as a storyteller, and the carpenter and the man who was just the funniest person I’ve ever met, his humanity and his calmness, in a way—he didn’t get all flustered about stuff that didn’t really matter that much…All of those things I wanted to show because the part of him that was the sharp-witted intellectual and the rather dour figure—we all know that from interviews, and [that’s] the way people see him. What’s nice about what I was able to offer in this film was just another more personal side to him, which I think can then shed a little light on the plays again, too.
We see in the film how close and affectionate you and your father were. That’s not something every child can say of their relationship with a parent.
I don’t think I really appreciated what I had. I certainly appreciated him and I knew that I loved him, but how unusual that was I don’t think I understood until making the film, and seeing people’s reactions, and just watching us in a slightly more dispassionate way—observing us together, which of course you don’t do when you’re within the relationship. You’re not looking at it from a distance. For me, it was just the way it was. We just hit it off as individuals. There was just something about the way we both were. We got along really well and we understood each other.
In your interview with Bob Miller, your half-brother, you make a side comment that your father had “a weak spot for being adored.” Can you elaborate on that a little bit?
I think his mother adored him. It’s kind of like a protective nimbus that followed him around as a young man and protected him, in a sense, and gave him enormous confidence… My mother definitely adored him and he really enjoyed being the adored one. Luckily he was very adorable [laughs]. That made things a lot easier for us…He also was very loving in return, so he wasn’t somebody who was a total narcissist who only needed to be adored.
I was somewhat surprised you devoted a part of the film to your father’s relationship with Marilyn Monroe [they were married from 1956-1961]—surprised in the sense that the ongoing obsession with Marilyn sometimes overwhelms assessment of anything associated with her.
It would have been disingenuous or untrue of me to skip over that or gloss over that relationship. It was a very pivotal relationship for him. I tried to humanize it as much as I could…his inability to save her and his wish, his delusion, that he could transform a troubled person and give her new life was something that—it was his great comeuppance, I guess. To me, some of the most poignant moments in the film are his moments of silence that came about [that subject] and what happened in the end, her death… I think those [silences] are worth a thousand words right there.
One of the most intriguing sections of the film gets into his experience in the 1950s when he was hauled before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Your father refused to “name names,” unlike his friend, the director Elia Kazan. But in the film, he expresses pity for Kazan, not contempt.
He says in the film…people like Joe McCarthy and the Committee on Un-American Activities, they’re the villains, and that the people who were forced to make these terrible choices [about naming names] essentially were more victims. That didn’t mean he wasn’t highly distraught and didn’t disapprove of what Kazan did. But I think he looked at it with compassion. And I think in general his attitude toward human beings was a compassionate one.
Arthur Miller talks in the film about influences on his personality. He says, “It all comes from somewhere,” referring to his parents. In what ways do you think you’re like your father?
I’m certainly fascinated by character and driven by character as a storyteller. I’m definitely that way. And I think I have a fairly workmanly attitude toward telling stories, doing the work that I do, in the sense that I’m a very hard worker and I just get on with it. That’s sort of the way my whole family was, growing up…I think also a kind of craving for some kind of social justice is a thing that I inherited from him in a way—not inherited, but absorbed.
What is most meaningful to you now when people approach you to say what they appreciate about your father, his work or him as a person?
It’s interesting, the reactions to this film. Of the people who come up to me, it seems like there are two main branches: People are either really touched because they see their own father or grandfather in my father. There’s a sort of universal quality to him, in a certain way, that’s bringing people’s own families up and their own memories and their own emotions that then are grafted onto the film. Or artists who are inspired and kind of soothed, I suppose, by his bravery, but also by how many times he failed as well as succeeded. And that’s a part of the film that I think is a surprise to people, because they don’t really understand that he struggled for much of his life and he had this sort of indomitable spirit of saying, “I’m going to try again. And I’m going to see if this works.” And I think that’s really encouraging to people who are trying to make creative work.