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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

Documentary shows another side of celebrated playwright Arthur Miller

“My father was a national icon ... I recognised that his public persona was so different from the man I knew,” says filmmaker daughter

Rebecca Miller turns her camera on her father, playwright Arthur Miller. Courtesy HBO
Rebecca Miller turns her camera on her father, playwright Arthur Miller. Courtesy HBO

Intellectually, any American with a decent arts school education can hold forth on Arthur Miller, the 20th century giant of that country’s theatre. They’ll tell you how Death of a Salesman is about the loss of identity and a man’s inability to accept change within himself and society. Or that the colonial Salem witch trials setting of The Crucible, inspired by the anti-communist McCarthy hearings of the United States in the 1950s, is about the mass paranoia and damage that flow from dark desires and agendas.

Culturally, at least, western society can give itself full marks for keeping the memories of great artistic icons, like Miller, polished and their works alive on the stage, even after their flesh-and-blood creators have shuffled off this mortal coil. Even Miller himself, who died in 2005 at the age of 89, found comfort in fondly quoting the Latin aphorism, Ars longa, vita brevis: “Art is long. Life is short.”

So while much is known about Miller’s art and literary genius, it’s the “Arthur” part of the equation – the human heart and soul behind it all – that lingers as more of a mystery. That’s all about to change with Arthur Miller: Writer, a fascinating, moving biographical documentary that brings a wealth of insight into the man. Filmed over the last 25 years of Miller’s life by his youngest daughter Rebecca Miller, who also narrates, the HBO production premieres on Monday on OSN First HD, Home of HBO.

From his first play No Villain (1936) to Finishing The Picture (2004), Miller’s plays won many honours, including a Pulitzer Prize for Death of a Salesman when the writer was 33 years old; three Tony Awards and another for Lifetime Achievement.

Other laurels include Kennedy Centre honours; the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award; the Theatre Guild National Award; an honorary Molière Award; the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters; and the American Academy of Arts and Letters Gold Medal for Drama.

“My father was a national icon ... I recognised that his public persona was so different from the man I knew,” says Rebecca, 55, born by his third marriage to photographer Inge Morath. “One of the strange things about the film for me is that phenomenon of getting to know Arthur.”

This is by far the most personal project yet undertaken by Rebecca – who’s best known as the writer-director of films such as The Ballad of Jack and Rose, The Private Lives of Pippa Lee and Maggie’s Plan – as she drills down deep into her family’s well of memories. Aged 21 when she realised she wanted to be a filmmaker, she picked up a Super 8 camera and pointed the lens at everyday life around the Miller home. When her first movie, Angela, won a Gotham Award and a prize of 16mm film, the shooting intensified with weekend trips with her friend, cinematographer Ellen Kuras, to her father’s Connecticut home.

Rebecca says she took on the project because she didn’t think anyone else “would be able to get close to him”.

Through her footage we see a more light-hearted Arthur Miller than the stern public persona he projected. Here he sings, goofs off and tells extraordinary stories. At first, Rebecca thought she’d pass her footage on to her children (with husband actor Daniel Day-Lewis), but soon realised if she didn’t release it to the public, “(My Dad) would have died and nobody will know he was funny”.

It’s hardly surprising that Miller liked to work wood, to construct or to put things back together, like soldering a wire in a broken coffeemaker, for example. The parallels between good playwriting and good carpentry are many – design, structure and strength.

One telling exchange finds Rebecca hanging out with her father in his workshop, talking about the origins of art, as he fits together two pieces of lumber. “OK Pop. When you start a play, do you start with a character?” she asks. “A person. A human being,” Miller matter-of-factly replies, requiring only five words to speak volumes about his craft.

As a public figure, Miller made headlines as a target of the House Un-American Activities Committee at the crest of a wave ridden by Wisconsin senator Joe McCarthy, and as tabloid fodder and gossip for his second marriage with the actress Marilyn Monroe.

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One might think his frustration would boil over now and then, or that a fiery anger fed by America’s societal shortcomings, or the Wall Street Crash of 1929 that ruined his well-to-do parents, energised his keyboard, but that is not the case. “The Depression was a seismic event in my father’s life. To him, writing dealt with survival. Social conscience. Injustice to the world. He drew from letters, journals. Committed to liberal causes, his plays were about human beings caught in the system. He would get angry in abstract ways. He didn’t pick fights,” Rebecca told the audience at the recent premiere of her documentary at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. “I wouldn’t call him mild-mannered because he always had a kind of presence around him, but he shied away from conflict, and put it all somewhere else – in his plays.”

Of his marriage to Monroe, she said: “It would come up in the outside world, or at home in the form of a little anecdote. But it was the past. Like anybody’s ex-marriage, it didn’t really come up.”

In one of the documentary’s most poignant moments, Rebecca asks: “My perception, as I grew up, was that you had a lot of disappointments in the theatre?” After a beat, Miller pipes up: “I agree with you ... but the voice is the important thing ... that you don’t go silent.”

Arthur Miller: Writer airs at 11pm on Monday on OSN First HD, Home of HBO