Arthur Miller: Return of the Misfit

With Everybody Wins, Arthur Miller has made another foray into Hollywood, 28 years after the misfits. This time, he says, he's written "an entertainment." And does it have anything to do with Marilyn? "Oh God, no, I don't think so." But, it is about a woman with a wayward grip on reality.

As a screenwriter, Arthur Miller makes a fine playwright. Or so has run the conventional industry wisdom about the Pulitzer winner since his doom-laden original script, The Misfits, produced in 1961 to transform his then-wife Marilyn Monroe from screen dimwit to Duse, fell flat on its high-minded metaphors. That view is now about to be tested with the release of Everybody Wins, a $19 million film set in motion by Miller's first original script in twenty-eight years.

Directed by Karel Reisz, Everybody Wins is nothing if not a chancy vehicle in a no-fault moviemaking era. Miller's thriller-cum-smalltown-morality-play, about a P.I. losing his moorings when a schizoid woman hires him to clear the name of an accused murderer, demands spontaneous combustion between its stars (Nick Nolte and Debra Winger), and a peak level effort from a director who can roll with its funny/edgy mood swings, tightwire dialogue and percolating subtext.

And not only that. The deciding factor in whether Miller's oddball script comes to life on screen may well be the believability of the film's leading female character. At the epicenter of Everybody Wins is Angela Crispini, a woman whose grip on reality is a wayward, moment-to-moment thing. Equal parts smoky film noix floozy, Marilyn, and crusader, Angela is some piece of work. Debra Winger hardly leaps to mind when casting a spaced-out mantrap nicknamed "The Swede." (Peak-performance Monroe herself might do, or the hallucinatory Tuesday Weld of Pretty Poison or Faye Dunaway circa Bonnie and Clyde.) But Winger had better make Angela Crispini fly, or several tony reputations will take a shellacking.

If it turns out the movies have not done right by Everybody Wins, it will not be the first time for Arthur Miller. He and Hollywood go way back, eons before The Misfits. In 1943, the New York City-born writer toured army camps to research a script based on Ernie Pyle's Here Is Your War, which, when it emerged ten years later as The Story of G.I. Joe, retained none of Miller's passionate egalitarianism. Following that, the big screen versions of Miller's plays All My Sons and Death of a Salesman, neither adapted by Miller, both managed to undermine the spirit of the originals.

Hoping for better, Miller wrote The Hook, a screenplay for Elia Kazan, about a crusading longshoreman who fights to overthrow union racketeers and winds up on the river bottom in a cement block. Harry Cohn, president of Columbia Pictures at the time, sent Miller's script to the FBI and to Roy Brewer, boss of Hollywood unions. Brewer threatened a strike by every projectionist in the country if the film were made. Cohn and Kazan backed down.

Miller's 1953 play, The Crucible, a lacerating portrait of mass hysteria set against the Salem witch trials (widely taken to be an allegory of the McCarthy era when it opened, and later considered prophetic when Miller himself refused to name names before the House Committee hearings on Un-American Activities in 1956), was adapted in 1957 by Jean-Paul Sartre into Les Sorcieres de Salem, a film little seen in the U.S. The European-American production of Miller's short play A View from the Bridge did nothing to enhance the playwright's experience in the film medium--Pauline Kael described the result as "not so much a drama unfolding, as a sentence that's been passed on the audience."

Then came The Misfits. Miller had encountered Marilyn Monroe at a Hollywood party while he was collaborating with Elia Kazan. They married in 1956--Miller was 42, Monroe 30--to such headlines as "Egghead Weds Hourglass." Monroe, the wet dream who barely existed once the klieg lights were killed, had chosen not another bat-swinging, studly DiMaggio as her mate, but a diffident, even fatherly, Jewish savant. The Misfits, Miller's first filmed original screenplay, was designed around Monroe like a shrine. "Few people besides the actors and [director] John Huston understood The Misfits, "Miller recalls today. "I mean, it was supposed to be a western because it had cowboys. And it wasn't a western. I used to joke and say, 'Well, it's an eastern western.' "

What it was was a nightmare, with Monroe terminally late, constantly consulting with her acting coach, and frequently in no condition to perform. While the Miller-Monroe relationship spiraled downward, critics accused the writer of selling out to the bitch goddess. Then came the movie's release. Casting adrift five lost souls in the Nevada desert, The Misfits was top-heavy with symbolism and high-falutin, actor-defeating dialogue. "We're all dying, the husbands and wives," broods one character. And worse. The Misfits was, in fact, to be the movie headstone not only of Marilyn Monroe but also of Clark Gable, whose heart gave out weeks after completing the film.

Three years after The Misfits, Miller wrote After the Fall, a play widely taken to be autobiographical. Every utterance of Maggie, a ravaged, played-out sex bomb, seemed to strike like a shard of Monroe's psyche, provoking one critic to chastise Miller for creating "an act of exhibitionism which makes us all voyeurs." The controversy prompted Miller to deny in print that Maggie and Marilyn were one. Yet, both The Misfits and After the Fall revealed Miller as a bewildered, searching talent locked in a terrible emotional tailspin. Hollywood had proved devastating as working environment and subject matter. "It may be," Miller has written, "that Hollywood is merely a living Escher drawing with no inside at all, only an outside." Miller's cumulative experience in the film world prompted him to call screenwriting "an act of the will, not the soul."

Given Miller's professional and personal crucibles, the man's willingness to involve himself with another movie may strike some as curious. Yet he is very much entrenched in the fortunes of Everybody Wins, a picture that, if it finds an audience at all, is likely to reopen the debate over Miller's conflicted responses toward Monroe and toward the movies.

Winger's musky earthiness may help mute the comparisons between her character and Monroe. Even Reisz admits he made an early, conscious decision not to raise the issue with Miller. "I didn't think it would be helpful," he explains. But does Miller see a connection between Angela and Marilyn? When I ask him that question, he ponders it for what seems like a small eternity, then, barely audibly, says, "Oh, God, no, I don't think so ... It's a totally different kettle of fish. But who am [I] to control what people are going to make of it? I guess I'd have to take a pseudonym to avoid such things. I've learned this much: you never know what the hell people are going to come up with."

Miller claims that Angela and the work that contains her are merely fictions that first saw life at his desk in workspace adjacent to the Connecticut farmhouse where he has lived for 40 years. "I was sitting in my study one day and thought of this story," recalls the 74-year-old writer in a stabbing, gravelly voice rich in East Coast inflections. "It just seemed to me eminently a movie story; it wanted to be a movie, so I let it. Half the reason for writing anything is to see if you can do it. It was as much an experiment with the [screenplay] form as anything else. Not that it's terrifically avant-garde, because it isn't. I wrote it with no agreement with anyone to produce it. If it didn't work, it didn't work."

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