“Arthur Miller: Writer,” a lovingly crafted documentary about the award-winning American playwright, succeeds at filling the gaps between Miller’s public and private lives, painting a nuanced portrait of one of the 20th century’s most celebrated writers.
That’s probably in large part because the film’s director is Rebecca Miller, Arthur’s daughter. Following a recent screening at the Jewish Film Institute’s WinterFest in San Francisco, the film is set to air Monday, March 19 at 8 p.m. on HBO.
The movie is as much a warm and intimate father-daughter conversation as it is a summary of his life. It traces Miller’s story from his childhood in New York City to his second marriage to Marilyn Monroe to his principled stance in response to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) during the McCarthy era. A good portion of the film involves Miller himself speaking from the audio version of his 1987 memoir, “Timebends: A Life.”
But the film also captures Miller in unguarded moments, in his woodworking shop and garden with his third wife, Inge Morath, who was Rebecca’s mother and a noted photographer. Rebecca follows him through these moments, asking questions that search for the secrets behind his creative process.
The filmed sessions with her father began over two decades ago, more as a family project than a potential film. (Now 55, Miller is a respected indie filmmaker, actress and author, and is married to the Oscar-winning actor Daniel Day-Lewis.)
“In the beginning, I just wanted to get the stories down,” she said.
Eventually, however, she set up more formal interviews and began to conceive it as a serious film. In that process, she found old family films dating back to the 1940s and added interviews with her two half-siblings, Robert and Jane (born to Miller’s first wife, Mary Slattery); Arthur’s older brother, Kermit, and his younger sister, Joan Copeland; as well as with Jewish playwright Tony Kushner and the late Jewish director Mike Nichols.
On its own, Arthur Miller’s life story has enough ups and downs to pack far more than the film’s 98 minutes. After high school, Miller took a job that required a 90-minute commute. En route, he began reading what he called “thick books” that awakened literary ambitions. At the University of Michigan, Miller twice won the school’s prestigious Hopwood Award for creative writing, which stoked his sense of himself as a writer. While there, he met and married Slattery, a lapsed Catholic.
“She wanted an intellectual and Jewish artist, and I wanted America,” Miller says in the film.
The newly married Millers moved to New York, where his first Broadway effort, “The Man Who Had All the Luck,” had none, closing after six performances. Miller’s fortunes changed in 1947 with the debut of “All My Sons,” his initial collaboration with director Elia Kazan. The play, which involved a company that knowingly manufactured defective airplane engines, won multiple Tony Awards.
Miller followed that with “Death of a Salesman,” which debuted in 1949 and is widely considered one of the great American plays of the last century. The protagonist Willy Loman was based on one of the playwright’s uncles.
“There is an ongoing debate on how Jewish the Lomans are,” Rebecca says. “They’re Jewish if you want them to be Jewish. Certainly they were based on his own family.”
Asked in the documentary if he identified as Jewish, Miller responds, “Absolutely Jewish. But I inherited from my father the attitude of being American more than being a Jew.”
That was typical of his generation of American Jews, who hoped to assimilate, Rebecca noted. But she also said she had heard Miller’s great-grandfather was a rabbi. His mother kept kosher at home until she developed a “taste for bacon.” In one of their last conversations in the film, Miller says a play “is the process of approaching the unwitting, the unspoken and the unspeakable.” Rebecca suggests that that sounds a lot like Kabbalah, and he agrees.
At the height of the McCarthy era in the 1950s, Miller penned “The Crucible,” a drama about the 17th-century Salem witch trials that was a thinly veiled indictment of HUAC’s anti-Communist “witch hunts.” HUAC later found him guilty of contempt of Congress when he refused to name fellow artists as communists, as had Elia Kazan. Miller received a suspended prison sentence and was fined $500. He also parted ways with Kazan.
In 1956, he married Marilyn Monroe, who converted to Judaism. The film tracks his devotion to the emotionally troubled actress in their few years together. They divorced in 1961, and Monroe died of an overdose about a year later.
Three years after Monroe’s death, Miller reunited with Kazan to produce a new play, “After the Fall,” following a 10-year hiatus in their friendship. Reviewers savaged Miller’s roman a clef about his life with Monroe. When talking about the play in the film, Miller laments the future of playwriting and his treatment at the hands of critics.
Miller never enjoyed superstar success again. Among his subsequent plays were “Incident at Vichy” (1964), about a group of men detained by Nazis; “The Price”(1968), which featured Gregory Solomon, a Yiddish-accented character; and “Broken Glass” (1994), about a Jewish couple from Brooklyn set around the time of Kristallnacht.
Though hardened by public scrutiny and decades of waning critical relevance, Miller as a subject for his daughter is warm and honest in ways that another director — a stranger — might not have elicited.
“[His] public persona is so different from the man I knew,” she said. “I felt I was the only filmmaker he would let close enough.”