Miller and Williams, two titans of American theater whose Broadway success as playwrights seems unimaginable today, had much in common. Both men's most famous plays were directed by Elia Kazan, notorious for disclosing names of communist sympathizers to the House Committee on Unamerican Activities.
After early critical acclaim, Miller and Williams later in their careers were disparaged by critics, although both kept writing plays. Their most famous works retain their box-office power when revived.
The esteemed playwrights can also be seen as polar opposites. The gay Williams, a drug and alcohol addict, is a prominent example of the tragic artist who wasted his talent, despite all of his success. Miller stands as a model of of the macho male artist, famous for marrying Marilyn Monroe. (Photo above)
Although Miller sought Hollywood success, writing and producing the flawed film "Misfits" for the troubled Monroe, his plays never translated well to the screen, unlike Williams'. Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire," "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" and "The Night of the Iguana" are considered film classics.
Williams' plays glow with magical poetic dialogue. With all of his theatrical power, Miller can produce turgid, stilted lines. Both men created characters that will endure in the world's culture.
Created by Miller's daughter, the filmmaker and artist Rebecca Miller, "Arthur Miller: Writer" delivers an engaging portrait of the author of "Death of a Salesman," "The View From the Bridge," "All My Sons" and "The Crucible."
Filmed over 20 years at Miller's home in Roxbury, Conn., the documentary shows Miller as a likable, conscientious man who, unlike Williams, achieved tranquillity. After his tumultuous marriage to Monroe, Miller enjoyed a long and happy marriage to the Austrian photographer Inge Morath, Rebecca's mother.
In an early segment, Miller acknowledges Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire" as laying the groundwork for "Death of a Salesman." Miller says that Williams' unsparing dealing with sexual themes freed him to honestly handle social issues in his play.
"Death of a Salesman" is closer in spirit to another Williams Broadway smash, "The Glass Menagerie." Both are "memory plays" that blend impressionistic and realistic elements. Williams' domineering mother Amanda Wingfield is a female version of Miller's Willie Loman. Amanda and Willie hold the same grandiose delusions about their families and doomed aspirations for their children.
The film briefly looks at the McCarthyism of the 1950s, which led to blacklists of movie and theater artists who held communist sympathies. Unlike his onetime friend Kazan, Miller refused to reveal names to the congressional committee, receiving a fine and a suspended jail sentence. Miller says in the film that the committee called him to testify after his marriage to Monroe because it needed a shot of publicity after its investigation had waned.
The Miller documentary examines the decline of the theater as a centerpiece of American culture. Williams' "Glass Menagerie" and "A Streetcar Named Desire" and Miller's "Death of a Salesman" continued for an astounding number of Broadway performances. In postwar America, a serious play, like a serious novel, could enjoy immense popularity.
While he never came close to the success of "Death of a Salesman," Miller kept writing, although he admits he felt he was now "shouting into a barrel." His later theatrical work likely will remain obscure, but his late memoir "Time Bends" is a classic.
Miller's daughter shows her father as a complex, conflicted man. His courage, kindness, empathy, humor, equanimity and relentless creative drive overcame his setbacks. He was an American artist-wise man whose example still shines brightly.