Death of a Salesman

May 8, 2020

deathofasalesmanCBS has provided an unusually top-drawer production of the newest version of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. It boasts one of the world’s best­-respected film directors (Volker Schlondorff), a great cinematographer (Michael Ballhaus), and a veteran composer (Alex North).

And the cast, much of which is retained from the successful 1984 Broadway revival, contains some of the best stage actors around.

Even with all those credentials, the production’s single biggest drawing card is Dustin Hoffman’s performance as the American Everyman, Willy Loman. Hoffman dominates the play, but only so far as he is meant to; there’s no upstaging or grandstanding going on in the production that will air at 8 p.m. Sunday on Channel 7.

As Miller has said, Willy “cannot bear reality, and since he can’t do much to change it, he keeps changing his idea of it.” Willy has just been taken off salary by the sales company he has represented for 34 years; and he is greatly disappointed by his sons, in whom he tried to instill ambition by telling them, “Start big and you’ll end big! You got greatness in you, remember that!” He contemplates suicide as a last means of providing for his family, via his life insurance policy.

Willy’s final 48 hours are filled with revelations and fantasy, as he­ gropes (through reminiscence) for some kind of answer to what went wrong. His life has been filled with denial: He boasts to his sons of his popularity in his New England territory (“Be liked, and you will never want”), and a minute later turns to his wife, Linda, (Kate Reid) and announces the bitter conclusion that “people don’t seem to take to me.”

His oldest son, Biff (John Malkovich), swallowed all of Willy’s the-world-is-your-oyster booster­ism until Biff’s faith was finally broken. Because he never learned how to work for people, Biff is unable to function in the world. He floats from job to job, with vague dreams of going West and making his fortune. The other son, Happy (Stephen Lang), carries on Willy’s attitude of looking out for Number One, but he spends more time philandering than paying attention to his father. (Both sons are beautifully played.)

Schlondorff, the German director of The Tin Drum and Swann in Love, would seem an odd choice for this all-American play. But Schlondorff and Hoffman get a greater sense of the overwhelming sadness of these lives than any production of Salesman I’ve ever seen. The production is almost wholly without villains. And there’s no feeble hint that somehow “society” is to blame, either; everyone does what he thinks is best, but the efforts are tragically miscalculated or misinterpreted.

Schlondorff’s direction of the scene in which Biff hatches a scheme to go to his old employer and make something of himself is superb. The dynamics are always shifting as each family member tries to create his own reality, until finally they’re all sitting around the kitchen table in a fleeting moment of emotional and visual togetherness, that is immediately shattered by a blow-up between Willy and Biff, at which point the circle is broken.

Sometimes Schlondorff’s touch is too obvious – as is Hoffman’s. Willy is a large character, and Hoffman gives it a busy interpretation. It’s the sort of performance that usually works better on stage than it does on the small screen.

But even when Hoffman does fall into actorish ticks, it fits Willy’s character (after all, Willy is as much an actor, trying to create an elaborate illusion, as Hoffman is). Over the course of three hours, Hoffman’s heartbreaking performance works brilliantly.

From the first moment he wearily walks into the little Brooklyn house that he has almost paid off, Hoffman imbues the role with all the sadness and defeat that have come from 60 years of disappointment. Interestingly, Hoffman was at first reluctant to take the role when Arthur Miller (Hoffman’s Connecticut neighbor) suggested it. Hoffman thought he might be too young for the part.

But Miller pointed out that when Lee J. Cobb played the role in the original 1949 production, he was younger than Hoffman is now. So Hoffman put on the old-age makeup, and lowered his voice to a growl; but Hoffman’s keen powers of observation, not his makeup, are what make Willy a disturbingly recognizable man.

As Linda says, “He’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. . . . Is this his reward?” This production can provide no happy answer to the question, and that’s a measure of its integrity.

First published in The Seattle Times, September 15, 1985

This was during a stint I did as the TV critic at the Seattle Times in the summer of ’85. The production was made for television, obviously, but I think it counts. Hoffman did make the most of this, and I remember him saying somewhere that Willy was originally a small man in Miller’s text; we associate him with the largeness of Lee J. Cobb because Cobb happened to be cast in the original, necessitating a couple of script changes.

Rain Man

July 13, 2012

At a half-dozen or so moments, Rain Man comes within hailing distance of being a great film. It fails, but it is still the most intriguing big-studio movie being released this Christmas.

The film only got made because of the persistence of the two stars, Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise. A bunch of big-name directors were involved with the script from time to time, including Steven Spielberg, but the movie had trouble getting made. And after months of delays, the writers’ strike nearly put the script out of business permanently.

It’s easy to understand why the two actors felt so strongly about the story. At its heart, Rain Man has a wonderful idea. Cruise plays Charlie Babbitt, a slick Los Angeles wheeler-dealer whose latest scam is unloading Italian cars. When he hears that his father has died in Cincinnati, it isn’t much of blow; he hadn’t spoken with the old man in years.

But it is a blow when he learns that the father’s $3 million estate has been inherited by someone else, an older brother, Raymond (Hoffman), whose existence was unknown to Charlie. Raymond is autistic, and has lived in an institution for many years. Charlie quickly gets Raymond out and hustles him back to L.A., the better to get his share of the money.

It is a fascinating story, and the film unfolds, somewhat messily, as a road movie (Raymond refuses to fly) as the brothers travel west in their father’s Buick Roadmaster. It turns out that Raymond is an autistic savant, unable to function in the world, his life organized around rituals (Orange Crush at every meal, watching “The People’s Court” every day at the same time), but with a genius for numbers. His memory is so exact that a trip to the blackjack tables in Vegas produces a tidy return.

Barry Levinson (Diner and Tin Men) is the director, and he creates some beautiful sequences, such as Raymond’s turn at the wheel of the car in a casino driveway, or his “date” with Charlie’s Italian girlfriend (Valeria Golino), which consists of a kiss Raymond describes as “wet.” Unfortunately, Levinson puts the “rain man” material, which relates to the brothers’ childhood, on the back burner. It seems more important than that.

Oddly enough, I think Rain Man falters because of the two lead actors. Hoffman gives a precise, technically brilliant performance, but I always had the feeling I was watching Dustin Hoffman give a brilliant performance, instead of just watching Raymond. Cruise, who tries manfully, is a bit out of his depth here. It’s tantalizing to imagine someone like James Woods in a role like this.

Both men seem to improve as the movie goes along, and the film’s flaws largely recede. This is simply one of those movies that, from its opening minutes, let you know that something special is going on. There are precious few of those around, so Rain Man qualifies as recommended viewing.

First published in the Herald, December 1988

The movie went onto the list of Squaresville Oscar winners when it got best picture that year, and my reservations are intact, but it is cinematically defensible, I think. At least it deserves better than to be lumped in with the Out of Africas of the world.

Family Business

June 29, 2012

For a movie that boasts three big-money leading men, Family Business is a surprisingly underwhelming affair.

Sean Connery, Dustin Hoffman, and Matthew Broderick have all lent their talents, but their participation in this movie prompts more head-scratching than anything else. Why’d they do it?

It’s not a bad film, exactly. Connery, very much in his roguish element, plays a lifetime crook named Jesse McMullin, who’s always conducted himself by his own code of honor. He’s spent plenty of time in jail over the years, yet he’s respected and even loved by nearly everyone who knows him.

Everyone, that is, except his middle-aged son, played by Hoffman. (Because the elder McMullin was married to a Sicilian woman, their son was named Vito, a fact that continues to rankle the old man.) Vito, after briefly following his father’s criminal ways as a young man, has painstakingly built up a Manhattan meat business, which he loathes. But it is a badge of accomplishment to him that he has shut out his father’s life. The fact that Vito does not seem particularly happy is, to him, beside the point.

Vito’s son Adam, played by Broderick, has been strictly raised. Nothing but the best for this boy, the better to shield him from the family’s criminal streak. True to form, however, the kid has dropped out of college, just before getting his master’s degree. It seems he has an itch to try something a bit more dramatic.

Adam has a scheme cooked up whereby a cool million can be made by robbing a big chemical company. He enlists the aid of his wily grandfather, who suggests bringing Vito into the caper. After much reluctance, Vito joins up.

The rest of the movie is the robbery, plus the inevitably tangled consequences. Vincent Patrick’s screenplay, adapted from his novel, has a lot of scenes of people talking, and a static quality regularly creeps into the movie. Still, much of the talk is good and the actors who deliver it are just fine, so a lot of it works.

There’s just this sense of blandness about the whole thing. Even the ad campaign, three men in suits and ties staring at the camera, is dull. Director Sidney Lumet, who has made so many films in New York, gets an effective feeling for the city, and a nice contrast between Vito’s blue-collar business and his antiseptic, stylish high-rise apartment. There’s also a fitting clash of acting styles, in Connery’s juicy straightforwardness against Hoffman’s catch-in-the-throat Methodizing.

But Lumet can’t conquer a central flatness. Family Business finally washes itself out, as bland as a suit and a tie.

First published in the Herald, December 19, 1989

Tell you the truth, a suit and tie look pretty hotsy compared to this thing. The review is too generous. The movie is a stiff. It has some kind of writer’s strike vagueness to it, although I don’t know whether it was actually affected by such an event.


September 26, 2011

Chuck and Lyle: Road to Ishtar

Rumors are funny things; nobody knows how they begin, but the bigger the subject, the looser the talk.

The rumors about Ishtar probably started with the collision of egos involved: Stars Warren Beatty (he also produced) and Dustin Hoffman have been known to infuriate their collaborators and inflate budgets, and writer-director Elaine May is a notorious perfectionist. Then the movie had its Christmas ’86 opening date scrubbed, which is usually a bad sign. The grapevine word was: Columbia Pictures had a $40 million turkey on its hands.

Well, Ishtar is here, and it’s just fine. Nothing great, no instant classic, but a smooth-running comedy with some keen satiric digs. It’ll make, well, some of its money back.

The movie pays homage to the Bob Hope-Bing Crosby Road movies of the 1940s. It doesn’t have the improvisational loopiness of those films, but it borrows the same basic situation: Two ill-matched schmucks (Beatty and Hoffman) have a song-and-dance act, are trundled off to an exotic location, get into a terrible mess, and fight over a girl (Isabelle Adjani).

This being the ’80s (and with Elaine May’s penchant for topical humor), the mess has strong satiric overtones: Our heroes land in the North African country of Ishtar, where they are dragged into the middle of a dispute between a CIA-supported right-wing government and a left-wing rebel organization. Hoffman is recruited for work by a slick CIA man (Charles Grodin), while Beatty bumps up against Adjani, who supports the rebels and keeps saying things such as, “This means my life.”

May’s humor is effectively played, from the high-minded satire to some low comedy about a blind camel (a superbly acted role, by the way), although the climax doesn’t quite soar and there’s an abruptness about the ending.

One gag she milks is the duo’s pitiful songwriting efforts. The film’s original songs, written by May and Paul Williams (with some assists from Hoffman and Beatty), are monumentally bad, and the stars perform them with unbridled glee. (It may be relevant to note that neither Hoffman nor Beatty can sing his way out of a paper bag, and Elaine May knows it).

Primarily the film relies on the two stars to carry the comedy. They work well together, both visually (Beatty tall, Hoffman short) and vocally (Beatty soft, Hoffman hard). There’s also some play about their offscreen personalities; it’s an understood joke that Beatty’s doltish character is unsuccessful and inexperienced with women, when we know that the real Warren Beatty has probably had more women than any other man alive.

Their characters, dimwitted and hapless, are given a nice winsome quality by the actors. Early on, before they leave for Ishtar, Hoffman climbs out on the ledge of his Manhattan apartment; Beatty joins him to talk him out of this sudden depression. Hoffman laments that he has no job, no wife, no money. Beatty helpfully points out, “Hey, it’s taken a lot of nerve to have nothin’ at your age.” The film endorses that kind of nerve, which is one of the reasons I like it.

First published in the Herald, May 14, 1987

The movie’s made back a little of its reputation in the intervening years, but until it comes out on DVD the full-scale critical restoration will have to wait. It’s a really funny movie, partaking of some pleasant Sixties-style comedy with a dose of SCTV‘s “Sammy Maudlin Show” played out over 107 minutes. But Americans don’t do “satiric,” and the dumb conventional wisdom about this movie help kill it.