Directed by: Rebecca Miller
Featuring: Arthur Miller, Rebecca Miller, Bob Miller, Marilyn Monroe
Actor and director Rebecca Miller gives us an intimate portrait of her father, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Arthur Miller, who over sixty years ago wrote three American stage classics: Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, and A View from the Bridge. He was a natural from the start; winning writing contests while prolifically pouring out his soul onto the page. But Miller did not seem tormented or unhappy. When Rebecca interviews her father about his career and his past marriages, including his most famous one to Marilyn Monroe, we see a man at peace with himself.
It is as if he was able to expunge whatever feelings he had at the time through his works, and then go on with his life. We see him late in life always doing some kind of work around the house, whether it was woodworking, writing, or cooking. He was content, and was able to discuss himself with refreshing candor and with little regret.
Born in 1915 to Jewish immigrants, Arthur's father was able to form his own successful company despite being illiterate. The family's financial security ended with the 1929 stock market crash, and thus the family's vacation home and savings were gone, and the Millers had to move to Brooklyn. Miller went to college and despite being drafted, he did not serve in World War II due to a bum knee courtesy of a high school football injury. But he did write, and by 1947, his first major hit All My Sons was followed up by Death of a Salesman, which immortalized Miller. He became one of the few writers who rose to the level of celebrity, appearing on numerous talk shows and emerging from the anonymity most writers faced.
1950's McCarthyism led to The Crucible, in which he likened the Salem Witch Trials to McCarthy's House Unamerican Activities Committee. He wasn't far off. His longtime friend and theater partner, director Elia Kazan, named friends who attended Communist Party meetings or were full-fledged members, which led to an estrangement. More works would come with varying degrees of success, and inexplicably Miller found himself married to the iconic Monroe. This is an odd couple if there ever was one. Miller's first marriage produced two children, and his first wife was an uncommunicative and withheld affection. Monroe was beautiful, and so famous she and Miller couldn't walk down the street without being swarmed by paparazzi. But her troubles with drugs and alcohol soon took a toll on the marriage. Miller saw himself as someone who could save her from herself, and found he was unable.
Soon after Monroe divorced him, Miller married for the third and final time to German photographer Inge Morath, who gave birth to Rebecca in 1962. She was Miller's match, and the two remained happily married until her death from cancer in 2002. Miller died in 2005 at age 89 after a well-lived life. Arthur Miller: Writer isn't simply hagiography. Miller, through extensive interviews, is not afraid to confront his past missteps. He had successes and failures as a playwright, with most of the failures coming during the 1970's and beyond, in which he wondered whether he was still relevant enough to reach the next generation of theatergoers.
Miller's intelligence and passion for life are present throughout. He spoke plainly and decisively, rarely stumbling over his words. He was candid and thoughtful about himself, while also providing some self-deprecating humor. This is why Arthur Miller: Writer isn't a standard documentary with talking heads telling us all about Miller while the subject remains silent. The best moments occur when Arthur Miller himself is speaking, taking center stage. He seemed to be a loving husband and father, although his first two children lament their father working so much while they were growing up, and Rebecca simply adores him. He had a fourth son named Daniel who was born with Down Syndrome and institutionalized, which is heartbreaking as it unfolds.
I sometimes tire of interviews with musicians or artists who are cagey about telling the origin stories of their most famous works. Arthur Miller expounds on the spark which ignited the work, but also what feelings he tried to convey as he wrote it. Miller used writing as catharsis, and he was actually able to enjoy life as well. How many can say that?