Home Video Hovel: Death of a Salesman, by West Anthony
When Death Of A Salesman was first broadcast on television in the ’80s, I had certainly been aware of Arthur Miller’s classic play, and knew of its significance, but in my youth I was not fully appreciative of what it had to say about the way time bears down upon us all, like an orphanage on a hang glider. When it’s far off in the distance, we don’t give it any thought, but when the shadow of that orphanage looms large you can’t help but take stock of who you are, and what you are, and how differently the world looks at you when you are older, if indeed it bothers to look at all. Watching Volker Schlondorff’s 1985 adaptation through older eyes is like getting slapped in the face with the darkness of failure and mortality.
Dustin Hoffman stars as Willy Loman, the salesman who dies (spoiler), and his is an extraordinary performance – not only because he’s firing on all cylinders as an actor but because he has been artificially aged for the role with a remarkably seamless makeup job. Even in the high definition presentation of the new Shout! Factory blu-ray, Hoffman (in his late forties at the time) is entirely convincing as the 63-year-old protagonist whose life disintegrates before our eyes. Kate Reid co-stars as Willy’s long-suffering wife Linda; she does a fine job with what unfortunately remains a lesser role, since it is Willy’s relationship with his two sons that is the most important in the story. Biff and Happy are played by John Malkovich and Stephen Lang, and their performances are impressive (not least in Lang’s case because he has not played a character who could plausibly be named “Happy” for some years now); as the adrift, ambivalent Biff, Malkovich has the tougher part, and captures the complicated self-loathing of a man who felt he never measured up to his father combined with the loathing of that very same father who himself failed to measure up to the hero worship of the son. (It happens.)
While the acting is uniformly great, it is also distinctly theatrical; Schlondorff (The Tin Drum) does not deny Salesman’s stage roots but chooses to embrace them, accentuating the shifting, stream-of-consciousness reveries of Loman with dramatic lighting courtesy of cinematographer Michael Ballhaus (Goodfellas) and the half-real, half-impressionistic production design of Tony Walton (All That Jazz). As the director himself says in the supplemental material, “This is not a real house, because if you have that much reality, you don’t need that many words anymore; this being a play, reality should be created through the words… Everything should be fake except the emotions.” It is probably no coincidence that Arthur Miller himself was a constant presence on the set, ensuring that his words would be left intact and never subservient to the more visual aspects of filmmaking – his play was adapted to film in 1951 with Frederic March as Willy, and Miller was not thrilled with the results, which may be why it has never been officially released on home video. (March is really good though, and Kevin McCarthy is terrific as Biff.) Speaking of that film, it was scored by Alex North, who not only wrote music for the original Broadway production, but this TV version as well; his melancholy score may represent the only instance of a composer writing for the same work in three mediums.
The blu-ray looks better than one would expect from a television production, but with such top-notch craftsmen behind the camera this should not be a surprise. The sole extra on the disc is a behind-the-scenes documentary, but it’s a feature-length documentary so you’re really getting your money’s worth. It’s also a real eye-opener – apart from several scenes of Arthur Miller engaged on the set rather more than most screenwriters are accustomed to, and celebrity cameos as the likes of Warren Beatty and Tony Randall visit the production, we are treated to the sight of Dustin Hoffman taking liberties with the direction of other actors, and even insisting to Schlondorff that a scene be reshot. Which it was. If you didn’t believe the rumors that Hoffman is an uber-perfectionist, hard evidence awaits you.
In a way, Death Of A Salesman is more akin to a psychological horror film than Broadway drama – there are times when it feels like Polanski’s Repulsion as Willy sinks deeper into his interior life while his external one rides the rails to Nowheresville. If you’ve only ever heard of Dustin Hoffman’s Willy Loman, you owe it to yourself to see it – in a career filled with brilliant performances, this is one of his very best. The tragedy of a man struggling to retain some sense of relevance in a world that increasingly has no use for him seems to be one that nearly every American male must eventually face; Arthur Miller’s timeless truths are well-served in this adaptation of his play, and Hoffman’s performance is a sobering reminder that while a man’s life can easily add up to nothing, it need not be so.