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.

The Glass Menagerie

May 7, 2020

glassmenagerieWhen Paul Newman announced he would bring Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie to the screen in a definitive version, he wasn’t kidding. Newman, as director, has rendered the play in a respectful transcription; the film doesn’t even carry a screenwriter credit, so faithful is it to Williams’ original.

The play, which made Williams’ reputation in 1945, has been filmed before. A 1950 version was a misfire, and a 1973 TV adaptation was dominated, and perhaps unbalanced, by Katharine Hepburn’s performance.

Newman’s version was prompted by a 1986 stage production, from which he kept three of the four actors: Joanne Woodward, as the faded flower of Southern womanhood, the ruler of the roost (a dingy St. Louis apartment); Karen Allen, as the frightfully shy daughter, Laura, whose life centers on her collection of glass animals; and James Naughton, as the “gentleman caller” who light ups Laura’s life for a few moments. Newman brought in John Malkovich to play Tom, who narrates the play and remembers (though “Time is the longest distance between two spaces”) a crucial moment in the lives of the characters.

These are all fine actors, but I wonder whether the cast and director haven’t been too reverential toward the play. The danger in transcribing the works of the American theater into some sort of Official Classics screen library is that the works will become as careful and shiny and lifeless as the little glass animals on Laura’s table.

For instance, the performances are safe and conventional, an approach that fits the definitiveness of this version but doesn’t spark a fresh view of the play. (Malkovich had wanted to play Tom as an overtly homosexual character, which would have made a provocative connection with Tennessee Williams’ own life; but Newman nixed the idea.)

As it is, Malkovich makes an oddly elusive Tom. Woodward, who has been married to Paul Newman for many years, is in many ways admirable as the mother, a fluttery belle who can’t comprehend her anxiety­-plagued children. (The absent father, you will recall, was “A telephone man who fell in love with long distances.”) But admirability doesn’t always translate into cinematic excitement; there’s a bit too much of the grand dame here, more than the role can use.

Karen Allen, who was the heroine in Raiders of the Lost Ark, is quietly good at catching the dark eyes and hesitant movements of Laura. But the best performance comes from James Naughton, an actor who usually does stage work. His charming Gentleman Caller is full of can-do aphorisms that may strike even his own ear as just a bit hollow.

First published in the Herald, 1987

Looks like somebody cut off this review a little shy of its ending. And yet there was room for a large photo of Karen Allen. For which I can hardly blame the Herald. The Port Townsend Film Festival showed this film for a Karen Allen tribute evening in 2013, and I did the Q&A with the very engaging star. The movie looked good that night, and probably serves as a very good introduction to the play for many.

The Killing Fields

December 2, 2019

killingfieldsThere is a tremendous movie in the middle of The Killing Fields. It lasts for about 90 minutes or so, and during that time you can’t take your eyes off the screen.

This section begins with a group of international journalists being captured by the hostile Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia in 1975. When the reporters are rounded up and held at gunpoint, with their extermination apparently imminent, one of them, Dith Pran (played by Dr. Haing S. Ngor), the only Cambodian in the group, starts doing some fast talking to the captors. After an exhausting session, Pran manages to save their necks, and the journalists are moved to the neutral zone of Phnom Penh’s French Embassy, where they wait for deportation.

There, the Westerners must do for Pran what he did for them, because anyone with a Cambodian passport will be detained in the country (and be subject to almost certain execution). Thus follow some frantic efforts to construct a false passport for Pran.

These sequences are riveting, and brilliantly filmed (in Thailand) by first-time director Roland Joffe and cinematographer Chris Menges (whose most recent credit – about as far from The Killing Fields as you can get – was Comfort and Joy). The sequence during which Pran’s family leaves Phnom Penh, staged in a whirl of helicopter blades and con­fusion, is stunning in its grasp of what makes for compelling cinema.

The film, which is based on the true story recounted by New York Times reporter Sydney Schanberg, has many such vivid scenes, although it has some problems, too. It begins with Schanberg (Sam Waterston) arriving in Cambodia in 1973, just as that country was being introduced to the bombings during the Vietnam War.

Schanberg is an abrasive, self­ righteous journalist who strikes up a friendship with Pran. The movie, while dealing with the issues of deception and inhumanity in Cambodia, is really more about the developing comradeship between these two unlikely friends.

As such, it works well enough, although the film details Pran’s life better than Schanberg’s. It’s interesting that a big-budget film would have the courage to devote much of its running time – especially in the final 45 minutes – to this nonactor playing essentially wordless scenes, during Pran’s internment in a hellish Cambodian prison camp.

Although a lot of The Killing Fields hits home with force, I was left with a vague feeling of disappointment. Director Joffe, who during the lengthy (and sometimes shapeless) exposition sequences shows a gift for throwaway shock effects, also has a tendency to overstate his case.

This ranges from a few too many shots of burned and mangled victims’ bodies to the use of a popular song (I won ‘t tell which one) over the final scene. Some people will watch that final scene and think it exactly right; I found it overdone. Sometimes restraint is the highest eloquence.

This is the latest of British Producer David Puttnam’s string of important films, many of which were done by novice (or near-novice) directors. He’s done Midnight Express, Local Hero, and Chariots of Fire, and he’s very definitely turned into a one-man industry to watch.

Also very watchable is John Malkovich, the blind man in Places in the Heart, who really lights up the screen as Schanberg’s photographer buddy. Malkovich ought to bag a supporting actor Oscar nomination this spring – the only question is, for which movie?

But The Killing Fields belongs to Dr. Haing S. Ngor. He doesn’t exactly give off sparks, but Ngor, with his quiet, natural screen presence, has the audience’s unconditional sympathy throughout. He communicates true but not icky good-heartedness, and his heart is the pulsing center of the film.

First published in the Herald, January 17, 1985

Haing S. Ngor won the Oscar, and the film found great critical success. Joffe did The Mission and some other serious films, and is still working, although his disastrous 1995 version of The Scarlet Letter seemed to take his career from its high platform. 



Empire of the Sun

October 2, 2019

empireofsunIn the opening shot of Empire of the Sun, the screen is filled with murky river water; flowers drift by in the current, and then a wooden box – but the box is cracked open, a coffin revealing a pale corpse inside. Immediately, the audience is served notice: This will not be your average Steven Spielberg movie.

Actually, the average Spielberg movie is generally an exhilarating film experience, although the director-producer-conglomerate has lately been Hollywood’s favorite whipping boy. He’s made an incredible amount of money in a few years, and he’s brought no small measure of joy into the lives of moviegoers, from Close Encounters of the Third Kind to E.T. to The Color Purple. For this, and for the sin of making movies about children and extraterrestrials, he’s become the subject of scorn.

For some reason the same people who rightly complain about how Hollywood ignores children’s movies are the same folks who whine that Spielberg must make films for adults. While the rest were trying to figure that one out, Spielberg was out making Empire of the Sun, which turns the neat trick of being an adult movie about childhood.

It’s based on a novel by J.G. Ballard, who drew on his own experiences as a boy growing up in occupied China in World War II. Spielberg’s film charts the wartime life of young Jim (Christian Bale), who begins the story as the spoiled son of the British uppercrust in Shanghai. After he’s separated from his parents in the crush of evacuation, Jim is on his own in Shanghai for a few weeks, then taken into custody and shipped to a Japanese prison camp.

Most of the remainder of the film is set in the camp, where Jim evolves from a posh kid into a savvy survivor, mainly under the influence of three people: a sickly, beautiful woman (Miranda Richardson), a compassionate doctor (Nigel Havers), and especially a cocky, manipulative American seaman (John Malkovich), who holds court constantly and apprentices Jim in the ways of a survivor.

Empire of the Sun is a rich production, from the magnificent period detail in the Shanghai sequences (filmed on location) to the nuances of Allen Daviau’s cinematography in the potentially monotonous camp scenes (filmed in a Spanish desert).

But there is much more than top-flight production value. Spielberg’s eye for the small touches that reveal so much about character is as keen as ever, such as the mysterious layer of spilled face powder that tells the story of Jim’s parents’ capture at their empty home. It is supremely evocative directorial work.

It’s fascinating that Spielberg, whose criticized weakness is toward sentiment, would choose an adapter whose work is, to put it mildly, not known for its heart. Playwright Tom Stoppard’s screenplay is marked by neat understatement, and an ability to pack various meanings within a single line: When a truck leaves for the camp, Jim finagles his way on board by offering help to the confused driver: “I know the way to Suchow! My parents were members of the country club!”

Stoppard’s coolness matches Spielberg’s warmth, and suits this often grim story. Yet Spielberg finds the life-affirming thread in the material, made rich by the complexity of the design and the naturalism of the actors (Spielberg, so superb with children, has gotten a great performance out of young Christian Bale). Spielberg masterfully guides this odyssey from the dark to, quite literally, the light.

First published in the Herald, December 10, 1987

I recall having the chance to see this film twice before writing about it, a rarity in movie reviewing. From this piece you can get a sense of where Spielberg’s reputation was in these pre-Schindler years, based on my defensiveness about it. I still think it’s one of his finest films, and the idea that Spielberg’s sensibility thrives in juxtaposition to drier creative talents like Ballard and Stoppard seems legit. Whatever happened to young Christian Bale?

Dangerous Liaisons

September 26, 2012

Dangerous Liaisons is the slightly more pronounceable title given to the movie version of the Broadway hit, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, by Christopher Hampton. In any language, the movie is witchy fun, though overall it’s a bit underwhelming.

Hampton’s play was drawn from the 1782 French novel by Choderlos de Laclos, in which a pair of cold-blooded aristocrats play a sort of sexual parlor game with other peoples’ lives, only to trigger their own comeuppances. The central character seems to be the Vicomte de Valmont (John Malkovich), a “conspicuously charming” seducer; but he is in fact manipulated by the Marquise de Merteuil (Glenn Close), a waspish widow.

They wager that Valmont will seduce the most virtuous woman in France and also deflower a young bride-to-be (Uma Thurman), all during a summer stay at a lavish estate. Valmont is successful, of course, but he finds himself uncharacteristically moved by the innocent Madame de Tourvel (Michelle Pfeiffer).

The web that Hampton and director Stephen Frears are spinning here is designed to catch their amoral characters, and it is, for the most part, elegantly managed. The script is laced with sharp, pointed insults and double entendres; when Valmont flatters himself over seducing the young virgin, the Marquise derides the conquest as “insultingly simple. One does not applaud the tenor for clearing his throat.” You can’t help thinking that the whole thing plays like “Dynasty” in powdered wigs.

Through all of this, as enjoyable as it often is, I had a sense that it wasn’t quite coming off. Frears, who is better known for his looks at English blue-collar life (My Beautiful Laundrette, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid), is a fine director and he handles the change in scenery adeptly. Like Amadeus, the movie features American actors, without pretentious posturing or the traditional stuffy approach to such material. (Frears told Premiere magazine, “It’s a film like all my others; about sex, power, money…I enjoy playing off the modern sentiments against the facny dress. Of course, scholars of French literature will undoubtedly be appalled.”)

Some of my reservations have to do with the cast. The smaller roles are fine: Swoosie Kurtz as an anxious mother, Thurman as the young virgin, Keanu Reeves as her doe-eyed suitor. But Close and Malkovich dominate. Close, who carries over a certain Fatal Attraction vibe to the role, is small-eyed and crafty, and suitably wicked.

Malkovich (the black marketer in Empire of the Sun) is such an odd actor, and this is an odd part for him. Malkovich is not a conventionally attractive guy, and the Casanova role seems an awkward fit. He remains a cold figure, although what happens to him at the end of the film clarifies the character. It’s something of a stumbling block for the movie, and it’s one of the reasons I doubt Dangerous Liaisons will seduce its way to being a hit.

First published in the Herald, January 12, 1989

It was enough of a hit, and won three Oscars, and probably should have won one for Glenn Close. Malkovich’s lizard-like qualities threw me, but it’s a casting inspiration, no doubt about it. The competing DL movie, Milos Forman’s Valmont, had to wait for this one to get out of the way, and then quietly died when it opened a year later. Too bad it wasn’t made in the era of the instant reboot.

Making Mr. Right

April 18, 2012

Making Mr. Right carries all the funky earmarks of a New Wave comedy; it’s full of bright Miami colors, hip turns of phrase, and wacky fashion. Just what you would expect, in fact, from the director of Desperately Seeking Susan, Susan Seidelman.

Seidelman revels in trash chic. But for all her ’80s credentials, Seidelman has now filmed a pair of stories that recall nothing so much as the screwball comedies of the 1930s. Making Mr. Right is like a classical old structure jammed to the rafters with rubber chickens and X-Ray specs.

It’s all about the perfect man: Ulysses, an android created for long-term space flight. He performs human functions, and (this is a plus) he lacks the feelings that would create loneliness on a long voyage.

The only thing Ulysses needs is public relations; the flimsy plot excuse is that this will make him attractive to members of Congress who can fund the project. So his creators hire a public-relations expert (Ann Magnuson) to make the android cuddly.

This leads to the predictable conclusion that Ulysses begins to develop feelings for this human woman, thus short-circuiting his supposed heartlessness.

There are a bunch of nutty sidebars to this, including the woman’s erstwhile boyfriend, a politician (Ben Masters), and her oversexed girlfriend (Glenn Headley, in a very funny performance) who introduces Ulysses to the joys of uncomplicated sex. Except that sex becomes complicated for Ulysses, because it makes his systems overload and his head rotate.

And of course there’s a lot of fish-out-of water stuff with Ulysses’ discovery of the outside world (he’s been cooped up in a research lab). His rovings through a modern mall provide the most amusing adventures.

John Malkovich, who plays both Ulysses and the android’s egghead inventor, is a gifted actor. He isn’t a conventional leading man, but he is inventive; in the early scenes of Ulysses’ education, he uncannily recreates the look and movements of an infant. All the performances are good, notably Ann Magnuson, who has just the right combination of smarts and adorability.

It’s a charming little movie. But Seidelman’s heart doesn’t quite seem in the machinations of the screwball plot. She can’t quite resolve the split: Her attitude is Andy Warhol, but her story is Frank Capra. For instance, a wedding scene puts all the principals together, and begs for comic collisions. Seidelman gets the tacky look right, but the scene barely touches the possibilities.

She’s better at catching little offbeat details: a wedding picture taken in front of a painted seaside backdrop, which is perched in front of a real seaside; Magnuson shaving in the car on the way to work—her legs and underarms, that is; and poor lovestruck Ulysses getting a dreamy look in his undreaming eyes as he sighs, “I guess I’m just not interested in space travel anymore.”

First published in the Herald, April 12, 1987

By “New Wave,” of course, I refer to the cultural movement of the 1980s, not a cinematic cycle from France or any such place. I’m too far away from the movie to know whether I was right about Seidelman being closer to the downtown hipster world than the spirit of screwball, but I will say that her 2005 film Boynton Beach Club was a warm and generous comedy about the sex lives of older people that didn’t condescend to its subject.

Places in the Heart

February 14, 2012

In 1964, Robert Benton left his position as contributing editor with Esquire magazine when he and his fellow editor finished writing a screenplay. It was the true (sort of) story of outlaws who cut a bloody swath across Texas—named Bonnie and Clyde—and when it was produced a couple of years later, it changed the way movies looked.

While not as revolutionary as, say, 2001, Bonnie and Clyde nevertheless brought a new kind of frankness to the American screen. It embraced controversy in its treatment of sex and violence, and its ambivalent attitude toward its criminal heroes. Its hip manner and stylized look (directed by Arthur Penn) carried the nervy techniques of the then-recent French New Wave of filmmaking (Benton and David Newman got the script to Francois Truffaut as director, although he passed) into mainstream commercial cinema.

Two decades have gone by, and Benton is now a director himself (with two Oscars under his belt, for Kramer vs. Kramer). And he’s back in Texas—in his home town of Waxahachie, in fact—with his new film, Places in the Heart.

What a different Texas this is from Bonnie and Clyde. In that film, the amoral heroes were glamorous. In Places in the Heart, set in 1935, there is no glamour. Just work, and fleeting pleasure, and hard times. Benton’s outlook now is gentler and wiser, but he’s not lost his bite. Some moments in Places in the Heart are shocking enough to make you jump.

It surveys the interconnected lives of a group of people struggling through an autumn season. Sally Field plays a recently widowed woman who tries to plant some cotton on her land to make enough money to pay off her bank loan, so she won’t lose her house.

Assisting her are her two children (Yankton Hatten and Gennie James) and a pair of misfits: a black drifter (Danny Glover) who knows cotton, and a surly blind man (John Malkovich) who rents her extra room.

The other main plot line involves Field’s sister (Lindsay Crouse), whose husband (Ed Harris) is having an affair (with Amy Madigan, who married Harris during the film’s shooting).

Some of the material here is well-worn: the threatened bank foreclosure, the widow on her own, the forces of nature bearing down on the characters. I’m not sure Benton overcomes the fact that rural drama of this kind—especially after last year’s Tender Mercies and Cross Creek—has a certain over-familiar feel.

But, finally, he does things his own way, and a fine way it is. The film is full of beautiful and terrible moments that linger on and cast a spell. A boy with a gun by the railroad tracks; a woman hiding from a tornado in a parked car; a car full of musicians, riding back from a dance, still crooning “Cotton-Eyed Joe” as they drive into the dawn.

The final sequence of Places in the Heart is the most remarkable, most moving bit of film I’ve seen this year. It underlines the extraordinary generosity of spirit that is behind this movie.

Earlier, we’ve heard the blind man listen to a talking book (an album of Trent’s Last Case) that begins with the words, “Between what matters and what seems to matter, how should the world we know judge wisely?” Certainly, watching the film, you start feeling that every moment matters in some way. Thus the lives of the characters come to seem precious. This makes the final sequence—in which the lives are tied together—powerful indeed.

First published in the Herald, September 1984

It won Oscars for Sally Field (this was the “You like me” acceptance speech) and Benton’s screenplay. It’s a strong movie with many wonderful moments, if maybe not a great movie—but whew, that final shot lifts it all up. I got to interview Benton a few years later (and then three more times, I think), and of course asked him about it. He says the final shot was technically very difficult to get, and he was ready to give up and divide it into separate shots, but went with one last attempt and got it. Which makes all the difference.