“Death of a Salesman”–Trapped by the American Dream

Last week we had the unforgettable experience of attending “Death of a Salesman” at the historic Ethel Barrymore Theater in New York City.   One of my absolutely favorite plays has been revived five times on Broadway, broadcast in several television productions and produced twice for the silver screen.   Starring some of the most highly regarded actors in the US, “Death of a Salesman” still electrifies 63 years after its debut in 1949. This Arthur Miller tragedy is as timely as the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Sixty-three-year old Willy Loman (the magnetic Philip Seymour Hoffman), is the central tragic figure who has a fire in his belly.  Broken by the optimism essential to being a successful salesman, Willy Loman’s blood pumps with the belief that he can make things happen, can dream the impossible dream, almost surely a self-willed delusion. Willy is a hope-inflated man who has injured his family gravely.  His wife (played by the luminously reserved Linda Emond) brings an iron-strength to her role as protector of her husband’s fragile mental health.   She is also an unsung hero. We feel an ache for her when all the air goes out of her husband with her famous warning, “Attention must be paid”.

But the story belongs to Willy Loman and to his older son, Biff (brilliantly acted by Andrew Garfield of “Social Network” fame). The searingly brutal father-son relationship takes center stage in the most devastating emotional outbursts between the loneliest of lonely figures–Willy–and the disillusioned, lost Biff.  The words, like shards of glass, are gut wrenching.

But there is also another, younger son, Hap aka”Happy”, (the remarkable Broadway debut of Finn Wittrock), the outlier who follows in his father’s footsteps but is ignored nonetheless.   All four main characters harbor unspeakable, unhealed wounds.   Hoffman, as Willy Loman, hides his self-doubt from both sons while outwardly projecting the optimism so essential to “sell”: “A salesman is got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory.” Only his wife, propping up his ego, listens to his insides crumpling, his waning faith in the system he believed would always support him: “There were promises made.” And Charlie, his neighbor and only friend, understands:   “You have to have the ability to believe in yourself enough to go out there and make it happen.”

There are things that have happened–that can’t be spoken of–and that is the tragedy.  The Loman family is disintegrating in spite of their efforts and intentions.  Biff is blind-sided by his father’s callous lack of respect for his mother, Hap wants to be the success his father coldly ignores, and Linda just wants to make it through another day with her Willy. “But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him”, she says– but one link in the chain affects the others.

Willy’s misdirected pride inevitably causes him to disintegrate. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s unique contribution to this classic drama is that he acts without soliciting pity or conveying self-loathing.  We left the theater with a tremendous sadness for someone who strived so exhaustively for the American dream.

“The Ides of March”–Beware, Beware!

  Is it possible for any political candidate to win and yet remain true to his or her original values?  Movies about dirty politics such as “Wag the Dog”, “All the President’s Men”, “The Manchurian Candidate”, “Primary Colors”, “Bob Roberts” and “The Candidate” (to name a few) has yet another winner in this category–“The Ides Of March”.  Based upon the Beau Willimon play, Farragut North,  “The Ides of March” explores new ground as well as covering familiar territory about media’s role in politics. (Willimon, by the way, worked on Howard Dean’s campaign for president).

With a star-studded cast, “The Ides of March” focuses on a press secretary, Stephen Meyers (the fabulous Ryan Gosling) as an idealistic media wizard who believes in his boss, Pennsylvania Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney) currently running in a pivotal Ohio primary for the Democratic presidential nomination.  As the movie opens, Governor Morris is an uncompromising, idealistic liberal who believes he can make a difference. Meyers has obtained his prestigious job due to his friendship with Morris’ seasoned campaign manager, Paul Zara (underplayed subtly by Philip Seymour Hoffman). The  opposing candidate, Senator Pullman, has an equally experienced campaign advisor, Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti).  All those who are driving the campaign strategy are pragmatists–cynical and cold-blooded analysts– except for the young Stephen Meyers. Above all, however, Stephen Meyers believes mostly in himself.

Gosling yet again is the touchstone of the film, playing with a ferociousness and intensity we have seen in “Murder by Numbers”, “Lars and the Real Girl”, “Blue Valentine” and “Drive”. In the pressure-cooker atmosphere of the Ohio primary, Steve is obsessively focused on the governor’s campaign victory.   Others do not register on his radar:  the young intern Molly (Evan Rachel Wood), the New York Times journalist (Marisa Tomei), even his boss Paul Zara except when they  can support his move up the ladder. Personal and political ambitions are inextricably intertwined.  Motives are suspicious.  Mistrust and betrayal are inescapable. Concealment reveals to astonishing effect!

The 2012 US presidential campaign is  a year away, and yet many people seem already discouraged and demoralized.  Which raises the salient question about  political reality in the US today– If you’re too principled to play dirty, can you be a winner or is the game stacked against you?  Paul Zara (Hoffman’s character)–in one of my favorite scenes–complains that Democrats are so worried about being accused of not playing fair that they inevitably lose to Republicans, who are not so scrupulous. It’s why the Democrats perpetually have to play catch-up.  They never figure out how to play the game themselves.  Perhaps a bit polemical, the movie’s theme remains the same:  the winner in the campaign game is the one with the biggest advantage–shaping the media and backroom payoffs for personal gain. Those who do not consider politics a blood sport shouldn’t play.

“The Ides of March” is a thoughtful political drama, which may not result in  box office success.  The story is not a narrative of hope.  However, the last shot of the film is well worth the price of a ticket in itself:  brilliant, chilling, and epitomizing editorial self-control.  No other ending could do so much with so little.  A masterpiece of restraint!