CBS 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.