It’s a surprise, though, how warm and goofy Miller is in scenes with his daughter, as she captures him working on carpentry projects in his studio in Connecticut or reminiscing in his kitchen. Rebecca Miller, when the camera turns to her, watches him intently, with palpable affection. She proceeds chronologically through his life, starting with his origins as the son of a Polish immigrant who could barely read but who made a fortune manufacturing women’s clothing, which he lost in the Wall Street Crash of 1929. The subsequent humiliation and reduced status of his father seems to have inspired Miller’s 1949 play Death of a Salesman, his second major hit, and a magisterial reckoning with the illusory nature of the American dream.
The filmmaker interviews members of her family about their father, but she also talks to Tony Kushner and Mike Nichols, the latter of whom posits that Death of a Salesman took something from its author that he could never recover. “Something burned out,” Nichols says. “It’s so close to the tragedy. It’s so alive.” In the years that followed, Miller’s close friend and the director of the original Salesman, Elia Kazan, was forced to identify Communists in testimony he gave to Congress—another event that shook Miller deeply. The period famously inspired his play The Crucible, which explores the nature of McCarthyism through the allegory of the Salem witch trials. After it premiered in 1953, Miller himself was asked to testify to HUAC, although the head of the committee, the movie documents, offered to call the hearing off if he could have his photograph taken “with Marilyn.” It was a confluence of politics and Hollywood that Miller describes in the film as characteristically American. “We’re a country of entertainers,” he says. “You’ve gotta be entertaining. Even the fascists have to be entertaining.”
Monroe, Miller’s second wife, is a substantial part of the film, although not an overwhelming one. It’s almost as though Rebecca Miller feels reluctant to probe too deeply into her father’s romantic life, even though he himself laid much of it bare in the 1964 play After the Fall. (“The best work that anybody ever writes is the work that is on the verge of embarrassing him,” Miller says in one interview.) When Miller and Monroe were first introduced in 1951 he recalled telling her that she was the saddest girl he’d ever met—a line he later put into The Misfits, a film he wrote for her to star in. Their marriage captivated America, given the unlikely union of a brilliant intellect and an incandescent movie star. But Miller seemed to comprehend the pain within Monroe, who forged a bond with her new father-in-law that lasted until her death. “She couldn’t really gain for herself the confidence she had to have to do this,” Miller tells his daughter. Then he sits, silently, for what feels like minutes, his face distorted with pain. “Terrible,” he says. “Well.”