Our Lost Conscience: Arthur Miller and His Movies at 100 Years

Arthur Miller/Photo courtesy of the U.S. State Department

Saturday, October 17, marks the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Arthur Miller, widely and justifiably considered one of America's greatest dramatists. The New York City-bred writer died in 2005 at age eighty-nine, but over a span of more than sixty years beginning in the late 1930s, he eagerly dissected the American character in his plays and in his public life, exposing the failures and hypocrisies that he saw eroding family, work, politics, and morality. However, despite developing a wide-ranging relationship with Hollywood (punctuated by a high-profile five-year marriage to Marilyn Monroe), Miller's film career never had anywhere near the impact of his stage work; it suffers in contrast to the explosive cinematic marks left by fellow playwrights Edward Albee ("Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"), Lillian Hellman ("The Little Foxes," "The Children's Hour"), Neil Simon ("The Odd Couple," "Barefoot in the Park"), David Mamet ("Glengarry Glen Ross"), and Tennessee Williams ("A Streetcar Named Desire," "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof").

Miller's 1947 breakthrough play, All My Sons, was quickly adapted into a gripping post-war family drama starring Burt Lancaster and Edward G. Robinson. But his only other real big-screen movie-star effort, his own 1996 adaptation of his politically charged 1953 classic, The Crucible, was mostly dismissed by audiences and critics. Despite having British theater director Nicholas Hytner ("The Madness of King George") behind the camera and Oscar bait Daniel Day-Lewis in front of it, the film only generated one positive note: the Academy's adapted-screenplay nomination for Miller. His Pulitzer Prize-winning 1949 masterpiece, Death of a Salesman, inspired a number of acclaimed adaptations for television, including an Emmy-winning 1966 version starring Lee J. Cobb (who had originated the Willy Loman role on Broadway), a 1985 iteration with Dustin Hoffman as the doomed patriarch, and the 2000 Showtime version that earned Brian Dennehy a Golden Globe for his take on the iconic role.

Numerous other TV features have been adapted from his major works, plus versions of Incident at Vichy (1964), The American Clock (1980), and Broken Glass (1994) for PBS, BBC, and TNT. Interspersed among them were more than a few unremarkable or forgettable big-screen adaptations, some of which Miller wrote himself, including the 1962 Sidney Lumet-directed version of his 1955 play, A View From the Bridge; the 1990 thriller "Everybody Wins," based on his 1984 play; and the 2001 indie feature "Eden," inspired by one of Miller's short stories. But the 1978 Steve McQueen drama, "An Enemy of the People," based on Miller's English-language adaptation of the Ibsen play, and the 2001 indie feature "Focus," based on Miller's debut novel, have their merits.

It could be argued that the two most interesting films Miller wrote had nothing to do with his own source material. His original screenplay for John Huston's 1961 Western, "The Misfits," starring Clark Gable, Montgomery Clift, and Monroe, remains a pleasant, end-of-an-era curiosity. And his adaptation of Fania FĂ©nelon's memoir, Playing for Time, which became a 1980 CBS movie starring Vanessa Redgrave as a Jewish cabaret singer whose willingness to perform keeps her alive in Auschwitz, has real power. (For Miller's own take on the first fifty years of his career, check out his excellent 1987 autobiography Timebends: A Life.) Perhaps a filmmaker will yet come along and craft that powerful, definitive movie from a Miller classic with the help of one of our most talented post-modern screenwriter/playwrights -- John Logan ("Red," "The Aviator"), Peter Morgan ("Frost/Nixon," "The Queen"), and Beau Willimon ("Farragut North," "House of Cards") come to mind. Until then, we can heed Miller's own admonition: "Don't be seduced into thinking that that which does not make a profit is without value."

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