Arthur Miller once said that people lived and loved in the silences between all the talking.
The American playwright (1915-2005) wrote works that often show the venal underside of American society, culture, and families in an effort to reveal the impossible — the truth. Now his daughter, filmmaker Rebecca Miller, seeks the truth behind Miller in her documentary, Arthur Miller: Writer, which runs as the closing presentation of this year’s Santa Fe Independent Film Festival on Sunday, Oct. 22, at the Jean Cocteau Cinema. Using interviews that she conducted with her father, friends, and family members, as well as archival photos and film clips, the documentary is an homage to a man who was, as the film makes clear, still seeking the truth as he neared ninety.
As we watch Miller throughout his life — his first theatrical hit, the rise and fall of his first marriage, his second marriage to actress Marilyn Monroe, his appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee (he didn’t name names), his fading success in the 1960s and 1970s, and the joy of working around his Connecticut farmland — we see a man who was haunted by some of his decisions, and defiantly proud of others. What comes through, Rebecca Miller said, is “a very vulnerable and kind of boyish, puppyish aspect to him, especially in his early relationship with his first wife [Mary Slattery]. It’s not that he was invulnerable, but I didn’t see him as being romantic, to be honest.”
He’s also seen as a jack-of-all-trades around the family home, hardly the image one would imagine of an intellectual who was seemingly more comfortable sitting in front of a typewriter banging out another American theater classic like All My Sons, Death of a Salesman, or The Crucible. “His whole life centered around work,” Rebecca Miller said. “He would write in the morning. Apart from that, much of his waking day was taken up with welding the coffee pot, sanding down the dining-room table, mowing the lawn, and jerry-rigging some kind of plumbing system.” He also saved stuff — lots of stuff. “He would find this perfect length of copper pipe, for example,” Miller said. “And he would say to me, ‘People always tell me to throw it away, and I don’t throw it away, and look at this: We have a perfect length of copper wire.’ As if people were lining up for it.”
The film makes it clear that Arthur Miller’s life and work were shaped by some of the country’s significant historical events: the Great Depression, World War II, the Red Scare of the 1950s, Monroe’s fame and death, and the Vietnam War. (The playwright protested against the Vietnam War, though he didn’t understand the counterculture of sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll that enveloped the anti-war movement.) His works, including the controversial and underrated A View From the Bridge, do not play out as conventional realism. But through the decades, audiences connected to them because they depicted people and events that they had experienced in their lives. Failed fathers, false witnesses, and unsuccessful lovers fill the pages of Miller’s plays, and redemption came at a heavy price — often with the death of a character the audience had come to associate and empathize with. “They felt nailed,” the late filmmaker Mike Nichols says of the audience’s reaction to Miller’s works. “They felt, ‘Oh my God, that’s me.’ ”
Miller’s early success in the late 1940s led him to believe he was omnipotent, he admits in the documentary. Real life jarred him awake in the 1950s after his first marriage failed, he was accused of being a Communist during the McCarthy era, and his growing love and infatuation with Monroe had a serious impact on his work. “I was taking care of her,” he solemnly and sadly tells television news journalist Mike Wallace. In another moving moment in the film, Miller says of Monroe, “I don’t know how to explain a person like that,” as if he were still trying to understand his relationship with the insecure and fragile actress.
Of his hit-and-miss efforts of the 1960s and ’70s, Miller simply says, “I felt that I was out of place.” But he kept writing while revivals of some of his most famous plays brought him renewed attention. Those plays are full of familial conflict and angst, but in real life Miller eschewed such combative situations, as he recounts. “In life it was too painful. The pain went into the writing.”
Rebecca Miller was born in 1962 to Arthur Miller and his third wife, famed Magnum photographer Inge Morath (who shot photos of the production of the 1961 Western The Misfits, which Miller wrote specifically for Monroe). Miller, who has worked as an actress and writer, has directed several films, including 1995’s Angela and the screwball comedy Maggie’s Plan (2015). She met her husband, the actor Daniel Day-Lewis, during the making of her 2005 film The Ballad of Jack and Rose.
Whittling down some 200 hours of film footage to less than two hours for the documentary was a challenge, Miller said. Getting at who her father was turned out to be another. “I was making a piece of art, not an exposé,” she said. “I was trying to reveal the essence of a person. When you are a child making a movie about a parent, you realize that no child really knows their parent as a person. So part of this became an investigation, like a detective investigating a crime case: Who was this character, who was this person, why did they do what they did?”
At one point, we see television journalist Charlie Rose ask the playwright, who was appearing as a guest on his show, what he wanted his obituary to say. “Writer,” Miller responded. “That’s all. That should say it.” Rebecca Miller said she loves that response. “Whose obituary is just one word — ‘Writer?’ He was such a master of minimalism, saying things in as few words as possible. He wasn’t about to be bossed around.” ◀
ARTHUR MILLER: WRITER, documentary, not rated, 98 minutes, 3 chiles
Jean Cocteau Cinema, 6:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 22