Writer-director Rebecca Miller probes the creative mind of her father, the man behind such iconic plays as “All My Sons,” “The Crucible” and Pulitzer Prize-winner “Death of a Salesman” in her HBO documentary “Arthur Miller: Writer.”
Delving into his triumphs, failures and relationships — including his marriage to Marilyn Monroe — it’s a uniquely personal, intimate portrait of Miller’s life and creative process, told from an insider’s perspective.
“The reason why I wanted to make the film was I had access to his real personality, the way he was with his friends, and I felt that people didn’t know that about him,” Miller told the Journal. Over more than 20 years, she conducted many interviews with her father, who died in 2005.
Although the playwright was quite candid, “it was hard for him to talk about the parts of his life when he wasn’t that successful. You can see it in his face,” Miller said. “Also, when I asked him about fatherhood. He was not totally secure in what kind of father he was.”
For her, “The challenge was [finding] the balance between objectivity and subjectivity. On the one hand, this is somebody I knew and loved very well, but I needed to see him as a character,” she said. “I had to use the storyteller part of me to investigate, put things together and see the character as well as the person that I knew.”
“The secret of his plays is their humanity and how personal they were, even though he embedded them in other subjects.” — Rebecca Miller
It was important to her “for his humor to come across, his humanity and playfulness as well as the serious aspects,” she said. But her primary mission was to explore “the genesis of the plays and how they developed. Where did these great characters come from? I was interested in seeing how that cocktail of the historical and personal came together.”
As the film points out, Arthur Miller’s uncle Manny was one of the models for “Death of a Salesman’s” Willy Loman. “The Crucible,” about the Salem witch trials, was inspired by the anti-Communist witch hunt conducted by the House Un-American Activities Committee, “and also his own life and marriage and his thoughts on infidelity,” Miller said. “The secret of the plays is their humanity and how personal they were, even though he had embedded them in other [subjects].”
Later in his career, Miller wrote about Jewish subjects and characters in “The Price,” the Kristallnacht-inspired “Broken Glass,” and the Auschwitz-set teleplay “Playing for Time,” for which he won an Emmy Award.
“He felt that organized religion incited violence in people,” Miller said. “But I think he felt himself to be completely Jewish, no question. He didn’t have a relationship to ritual, but I think he had a relationship to God.”
Born in New York to Polish-Jewish parents who “did their best to assimilate, he was an American first, and then a Jew. When he first started writing, he wanted to be part of a larger conversation,” Miller said, explaining why characters like “Salesman’s” Loman family are not written as Jewish. “It wasn’t a question of denying. He wanted to speak to all of the country.”
Raised neither Jewish nor in the Christian faith of her mother, photographer Inge Morath, Miller, searching for spiritual guidance, tried on Catholicism for size in her early teens. But she “became much closer to Judaism and identifying at least culturally as a Jew” when she wrote the book “Jacob’s Folly,” about an 18th century Jew who is reincarnated as a fly as punishment for bad deeds. “I’m very connected to the Jewish part of myself,” she said.
Although she doesn’t believe she was genetically destined to write, Miller, having started out as an artist, saw filmmaking as “the perfect union between writing and painting.” She is best known for the independent films “Maggie’s Plan” and “Personal Velocity” (and to some, as the wife of Oscar-winning actor Daniel Day-Lewis),
Miller would like those who see the documentary to “go back to Arthur Miller’s work, perhaps some of the lesser-known plays, with fresh eyes,” she said. “I hope they’ll read these plays again, with renewed insight and enthusiasm.”
“Arthur Miller: Writer” premieres March 19 on HBO.