I’ve seen Arthur Miller — Writer, an intimate, not-uninteresting, years-in-the-making portrait of the late playwright. Scheduled to air on HBO next spring, the doc is a highly personal project by respected director Rebecca Miller, the playwright’s daughter by his third wife. I’ve admired Miller and his plays all my life, but the doc acquainted me with a semi-intimate, unguarded version of him, which was new. Miller was a crusty, somewhat brusque fellow when it come to being interviewed — you could use the word “blunt” or even “craggy” — but he never seemed less than wise or perceptive.
Born in 1915, Arthur Miller led an interesting life as a fledgling writer from the mid ’30s to mid ’40s, but led a ferociously fascinating life when he began to produce important, critically respected plays. His big creative period began in ’47 (All My Sons), peaked in ’49 (Death of a Salesman), rumbled into the ’50s (The Crucible, A View From The Bridge) and concluded with his last two big-league plays (’64’s After The Fall and ’68’s The Price) — a little more than 20 years.
Miller’s Marilyn Monroe period (’56 to ’61) made him into a paparazzi figure, and also seemed to bring on the beginning of his creative decline. Miller and Monroe divorced in ’61, and of course she died in August ’62, an apparent suicide. Miller still “had it” for a few years after this period. After The Fall, a thinly disguised drama about his turbulent relationship with Monroe, opened in ’64. Then came the less ambitious, more emotionally engaging The Price in ’68.
It sounds unkind to note this, but from ’68 until his death in ’05 Miller was more or less treading water (trying but never getting there, working on his Roxbury farm, the great man who once was, writing less-than-great plays, writing travel books with his wife) and never managing the comeback that we all wanted to see.
A little more than half (maybe 60%) of Miller’s doc covers her father’s life from his birth to ’68, or roughly 53 years. A little less than half covers the 37 years between The Price and his death in ’05. I’m sorry to note this, but the film runs out of gas around the 60% mark just as Miller himself ran out of creative high-test gasoline in the late ’60s. Arthur Miller — Writer is therefore half of an interesting documentary. I’m sorry if this sounds cruel, but the doc actually becomes a semi-downer once his life and work start to downshift. Your heart starts to slowly crack and break, watching the poor man go through this long, drawn-out, soul-draining, relatively infertile period.
You get to know Mr. Miller, for sure, and come to like and respect him a lot, but it’s really not that interesting to watch a guy fail to mount a comeback or get his big game going again, and remember that this failure-to-get-back-on-the-big-horse period lasted for 37 years (’68 to ’05). And those 37 years were Rebecca’s life (born in ’62) with her dad, so she had to focus on them, of course.
The only comeback Miller knew was when Dustin Hoffman did that Broadway revival of “Death of a Salesman” in ’84, which I saw by the way. John Malkovich, who played Biff, was just starting to happen at that time.
I think everyone is just caught up in paying appropriate respect and tribute to America’s greatest playwright of the 20th Century — a guy who owned the B’way stage and wrote legendary, world-class plays for nearly 20 years straight. Me too. I’m glad Miller made her film, and that I had a chance to see it. A lot of it is pretty good.