Death of a Salesman (1985)

Director: Volker Schlöndorff

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

My father, born in 1926, grew up during the Great Depression. He was drafted into the Navy during World War II and served on a repair ship in the Pacific theater. He believed, as most people of his generation did, that the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki saved his life by helping him avoid being part of a planned, but never executed, invasion of Japan. When he got home and married my mother, he started a career in sales—first in insurance, then on his own selling photocopy machines, and when his business failed, selling uniforms. He died at the age of 66, never having had a chance to retire.

It turns out that my father actually was a war casualty, though it took 40 years for the asbestos (even then, a well-known carcinogen) he was exposed to on the repair ship to kill him. When Dad became a manager at his insurance company, he was charged with firing workers, a job that broke his heart, especially when the worker had a family to support. As an independent supplier of copy machines, he could not compete with big companies like Xerox, though truth to tell, my father was no businessman. When he tried to sell uniforms to the City of Chicago, he was bewildered that none of his bids ever won. Schmuck, a ward heeler would have said. Who the hell is Art Ferdinand? Who sent him? Even I knew that.

The fact of the matter is that my father was the kind of man about whom Arthur Miller wrote his great tragedies. From falling victim to the indifference of the Navy to the asbestos danger on his ship, which echoes the tragically avoidable deaths of Miller’s All My Sons, to being a man like Willy Loman, better suited to working with his hands than trying to get ahead in business, even as the mildest version of a corporate cutthroat, my father’s American Dream was a fitful one.

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And once again, today’s economic adversity highlights just what a timeless masterpiece Arthur Miller created in Death of a Salesman. As Joyce Carol Oates wrote in an essay about this powerful work, “America has become an ever more frantic, self-mesmerized world of salesmanship, image without substance, empty advertising rhetoric, and that peculiar product of our consumer culture ‘public relations’—a synonym for hypocrisy, deceit, fraud.” Like the Lomans, millions of families sold on the benefits of the new Gilded Age bought the refrigerator with the biggest ads, only to find themselves suckered. Maybe our depression will be spun as the Greater Depression.

In 1984, during the opening assault of “market wisdom,” a revival of Death of a Salesman was mounted on Broadway with Dustin Hoffman as the title character. It toured the hinterlands, including Chicago, and I spent more on a ticket than I had ever spent in my life ($35) to see Hoffman, John Malkovich, Kate Reid, and Stephen Lang bring the first family of American tragedy to life on stage. The following year, the play was turned into a television movie. The cast remained largely intact, with Charles Durning replacing David Huddleston as Willy’s friend Charley and veteran film director Volker Schlöndorff replacing theatre director Michael Rudman.

The familiar story can be told quickly. Willy Loman, a 60-year-old mediocrity of a traveling salesman, lives in a large house in a neighborhood that has been encroached upon by high-rise apartment buildings with his long-suffering wife Linda (Reid) and younger son “Happy” (Lang), who works at a dead-end job. Their older son, Biff (Malkovich), a war veteran, has come home after knocking around the country. Despite Willy’s belief that Biff has greatness in him, both sons are directionless and somewhat disreputable—Biff is an immature thief and Happy is a lazy, resentful womanizer. Nonetheless, Willy refuses to give up on Biff, and eventually kills himself in the hope that Biff will use the life insurance payout to make good. But Biff rejects Willy’s ideals and decides to find his own dream; Happy announces his intention to continue Willy’s fight to be top man; and poor Linda, the one character who sees each man for what he is, is alone in the house that she has just finished paying for, realizing that for all their striving, she has nothing left but an empty shell in which to end her days.

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Death of a Salesman is the kind of drama that has cinematic possibilities, but its essence is poetic and symbolic. Rather than open the play up, Schlöndorff wisely uses his camera sparingly to emphasize the expressionistic roots of the theatre piece that, while framing its story as a family drama, focuses largely on the hallucinatory end of a self-deluded victim of the myth of America. Without the expectations that a more realistic rendering would set up, we are able to take in the fatalism Miller has written into each role, from Willy turning back suddenly from a sales trip because “I’m tired to the death” to Biff complaining to Hap that “I’ve always made a point of not wasting my life, and every time I come back here I realize that all I’ve done is waste my life.”

Like all families, each member has their assigned role, and throughout the film, each tries valiantly to play it. Linda tries to maintain an upbeat demeanor, telling Willy he’s “the handsomest man in the world” when he says he looks foolish and trying to come up with a reason for Willy’s restlessness and exhaustion other than what they both know is true—Willy is played out. Happy, the waterboy for his brother, announces periodically that he’s lost weight and that he’s going to get married as he tries to reassure his parents that he’s making good, too, though they hardly seem to care.

Willy is a weak and foolish man. He decided on his line of work because of an 84-year-old hawker who died “the death of a salesman, in his green velvet slippers in the smoker of the New York, New Haven and Hartford, going into Boston. When he died, hundreds of salesmen and buyers were at his funeral.” Being “well-liked,” Willy perceived, was his key to success—one Willy never could fit in the lock. At the end of his life, Willy laments to the remembered image of his brother Ben (Louis Zorich), who became rich in the gold fields of Alaska, “How did you do it?” Maybe Ben didn’t play so fair, maybe he did things that would ensure he would not be well-liked, but Willy will never know. Ben doesn’t speak to Willy—the echo of his platitudes, “Doesn’t take much time if you know what you’re doing,” haunt Willy.

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Biff, the popular quarterback of his high school football team, seemed poised to prove Willy’s theory of success right. But Biff, perhaps because he catches his father cheating on his mother but more likely because his father’s teachings are wrongheaded and oppressive, fails. The “anemic” Bernard (David S. Chandler), son of Willy’s only friend Charley, becomes a lawyer and modestly refuses to mention that he’s arguing a case in front of the U.S. Supreme Court until Charley blurts the news. “I’m overjoyed to see how you made the grade,” says Willy and then pleads about Biff, “Why didn’t he ever catch on?”

Miller’s searching dialogue and painful family dynamics allow the cast great room to breathe life into his characters. Hoffman, criticized for being too small for the part because of the stamp the towering Lee J. Cobb put on it in its Broadway debut (and Miller’s original dialogue, which alludes to Willy being a fat man), is actually too young. He exaggerates Willy’s physical infirmities, something that worked better on stage than it does in front of a camera. Nonetheless, he manages to find bridges to the other characters, creating the fractious love needed between Willy and Biff and a pitiful loneliness that comes out best in his brilliant duets with Durning, who plays Charley with sympathy, clarity, and exasperated understanding.

Reid is age-appropriate and elevates the beaten-down Linda by her insistence on being heard. She achieves just the right hysterical strain in her voice, and her wide-eyed anxiety about Willy’s behavior signals the long-time stress she has been under. Her love for Willy exceeds that of her mother love, as she spits venom at the huge disappoint her sons have been to their father and basically throws Biff out of the house.

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Malkovich is an alpha male of an actor, and he infuses Biff with the faded glow of the star of the family. He’s not interested in a “meager manner of existence,” but his love and fear of Willy prevent him from trying to outdo his insecure father. Malkovich restrains but does not bury the strength Biff has, so that when he rejects Willy’s dream, we’ve been properly prepared. His scene with Kathryn Rossetter, the Boston secretary with whom Willy has been having an affair, is the very picture of an inner cataclysm, as Biff crumbles in confusion and pain as Willy falls hard from the pedestal on which Biff placed him.

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Stephen Lang may be the unsung actor of this ensemble. Happy is the second banana, and Lang generously and appropriately maintains his supporting profile. While playing the easy-going buddy to Biff when they are with Willy and Linda, he is gleeful about his disreputable behavior—sleeping with engaged women and then going to their weddings; lying to a good-time girl (Linda Kozlowski) about selling champagne, listening to her lies in return, and forgetting that Willy is meeting him and Biff for dinner in town. Happy sounds noble when he affirms Willy’s dream to make it to the top, but like all of his lies, he’ll probably forget about it in a week or two.

Kudos to Jon Polito, who plays Howard, Willy’s boss. He isn’t horrible, nor is he sympathetic. He is merely a businessman who is so out of touch with Willy’s financial plight—though he pays Willy’s salary—that he suggests Willy buy a wire recorder, “the most fascinating relaxation I’ve found…You can’t do without it.” Business is business, and he can “eat the orange and throw the peel away.”

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This image of an emptied shell is repeated again and again in Death of a Salesman, and is realized to its greatest effect—as only film can—in an overhead shot looking directly down into the Loman home. Schlöndorff surrounds this roofless, peeling dwelling with flats of the neighboring buildings. The image is very startling and emphasizes the vulnerability of this family. He contrasts it with memory scenes of the Lomans going off to watch Biff in the big game—trees, open fields, emphasizing youth and the wide-open possibilities that still exist for Willy and Biff. Schlöndorff sticks with a moody, staged production, with spotlights illuminating Ben and then fading when Willy returns to reality. Schlöndorff lets his camera go one time—when Willy is raving incoherently in a bathroom—spinning with Hoffman as he tumbles to the ground. He uses slow motion in a POV shot of Biff watching Rossetter twirl in her underwear and flop voluptuously on Willy’s bed, again suggesting an image in Biff’s mind rather than what probably happened. And, of course, he has the advantage of being able to shoot close-ups to capture the emotions that race through his actors’ eyes.

The 1984 revival of Death of a Salesman was a theatrical triumph, and a prescient one at that. This independent television production, very well realized by Schlöndorff, preserves and reinterprets this landmark staging for future generations. It’s well worth your time.

  • Greg F spoke:
    10th/08/2009 to 1:23 pm

    I haven’t seen this since it was on television but I remember liking it very much. I also remember interviews with Miller where he stated the original dialogue about Willy’s size was “shrimp” and that he changed it to “walrus” because of Cobb. I don’t know if he was just saying that to promote the new production as the most “accurate” to the original or not.
    I don’t (as best as I can recall) remember thinking Hoffman was too young as he was 48 at the time playing 60 but that he played it too old as if Willy was 80. That might be a false memory on my part but as my own parents and father-in-law are all in their late 70s and early 80s now Hoffman’s 60 year old Willy looks and feels older than they do, and much older than Hoffman now at 72. I suppose that could play to the character being beaten down by life but that seems too easy an out.
    I read and saw productions of this so much leading up to and through college that I haven’t had any desire to return to it for decades but maybe now I will. I’m finally starting to forget some of it.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    10th/08/2009 to 1:34 pm

    Greg – I have the script, which may have been changed before publication. It does indicate Willy is fat. In the documentary on the making of this film narrated by Joanne Woodward, she says Miller had conceived Willy as a small man, which does fit the character.
    I agree that Hoffman went way too old on this, his movements too exaggerated. Playing next to Kate Reid, he definitely looked out of place. I think 60 year olds back then actually were older than they are now physically. Life was harder.

  • Rod spoke:
    11th/08/2009 to 8:25 am

    Apropos of very little, but I suspected when I saw the film of Frank Gilroy’s The Subject Was Roses that it was a not superior, but possibly less romantic retort to DOAS, which is also about a fractured relationship of a son and father, where the son is hardly shocked by the discovery of his father’s affairs, and only calls him on them because of his hypocrisy towards his wife. It felt somehow less deliberately “shock! horror! the disillusion is vast and all-consuming!”

  • Marilyn spoke:
    11th/08/2009 to 9:15 am

    This is one of the things that people wrestle with in DOAS, considered by some to be an imperfect masterpiece. I don’t really have a problem with Biff’s disillusionment because it isn’t all about his father’s adultery. It’s about the shattering of the myth of the omnipotent father. I have actually experienced that in my own life. The truth is Biff actually does follow in his father’s footsteps – he travels constantly and he never makes good.

  • Mykal Banta spoke:
    11th/08/2009 to 2:58 pm

    Marilyn: Beautiful post. I found your introduction very moving. I am beginning to wonder if everyone sees their own father in Willy Loman. Do we all see something broken and unfair in the lives of our fathers? Will my son see that in me? Miller was a genius, wasn’t he?
    I had forgotten all about this film. Thanks for the reminder. One tends to forget what a powerhouse Malkovich can be under the right circumstances. Thanks for the reminder and the wonderful post. — Mykal

  • Marilyn spoke:
    11th/08/2009 to 3:07 pm

    Mykal – My pleasure. Personal circumstances compelled me to write this, though I’ve seen the parallels for years. This is the whole idea of the “quiet desperation” of the worker, and if we don’t make the rules, we are probably destined to resemble the Lomans in one fashion or another.

  • Rick spoke:
    11th/08/2009 to 3:33 pm

    Great post, Marilyn. Like Greg, I remember this when it was broadcast, but with my dotty memory don’t remember Hoffman as playing too old, though I have no doubt that it’s true.
    I especially like the personal intro; it’s got me thinking of my own father right now with a lump in my throat.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    11th/08/2009 to 4:00 pm

    Rick – Thanks. Whenever I see people mistreated by “the market,” I think of my dad. He’s been on my mind a lot lately.

  • Rod spoke:
    11th/08/2009 to 9:53 pm

    I recall when Arthur Miller died, David Mamet told a story of how he’d once tried to engage Miller in conversation by telling him how much Willy reminded him of his own father. Miller gave a few distracted nods. Mamet realized later that he’d heard the same thing from everyone else; Salesman was the Great American Dad story.

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