Tuesday, October 24, 2006


Deaths of some salesmen

By Edward Copeland
For me, to truly appreciate great plays, you usually need to see them performed and, ideally, performed well. This is definitely the case with Arthur Miller's landmark Death of a Salesman, his Pulitzer Prize-winning play from 1949 that immortalized the character of Willy Loman. My first exposure to a production of Death of a Salesman was CBS' telefilm version of Dustin Hoffman's 1984 Broadway take on the tale. Since this was my first experience of the play, his was the image of Willy Loman, a small, mousy man who it almost seemed inconceivable could have had a mistress on the side.

As a result, when it was announced that Brian Dennehy would play Loman in a 1999 Broadway revival, the casting seemed odd to me: With Hoffman firmly in my mind, how could I imagine a bear of a man such as Dennehy playing the suicidal salesman. Recently, I had the chance to see the 1951 film version starring Fredric March and a 1966 CBS TV version that starred the original Broadway Willy Loman, Lee J. Cobb, and saw that Hoffman was more the exception than the rule since neither March nor Cobb could be called mousy or small. Comparing the four Lomans and the various Biffs, Happys and Lindas proved quite fascinating for me, illustrating what a difference performers and mediums can make to such a seminal work. I wish I could have seen Cobb on Broadway to see what his performance was like, but alas I had to settle for his 1966 TV reprisal of the role. When the 1951 film version came about, only Mildred Dunnock as Linda and Cameron Mitchell as Happy got to repeat their Broadway roles with Cobb replaced by March and Tony winner Arthur Kennedy replaced by Kevin McCarthy. March and McCarthy both snagged Oscar nominations for their work.

While Fredric March certainly was a good actor, his Willy Loman fell flat for me, as did the film itself, directed by Laszlo Benedek. It's stiff and lifeless and if you weren't aware that Death of a Salesman were a classic or hadn't seen other, better versions, you'd probably wonder what all the fuss was about. For me, Cameron Mitchell as Happy came off best but the film, which really seemed to be a filmed version of the stage production, complete with scenery that fades into other sets in flashbacks, left a lot to be desired. What's most fascinating about comparing the 1951 film version and the 1966 TV version is that Mildred Dunnock repeated her Broadway role as Linda in both productions. As with most everything about the 1951 version, Dunnock left me cold, even when delivering the play's signature line of "Attention must be paid." It made me wonder how Dunnock, certainly no big Hollywood name, especially in 1951, managed to snag the role in the film version when Cobb and Kennedy did not.

Then, I saw the 1966 TV production, not only a better presentation of the play but the opportunity to watch Dunnock play Linda well. I don't know if it could have been attributed to being reunited with Cobb, her original on-stage husband from 1949, but what Dunnock's performance lacked in 1951 she more than made up for in 1966, injecting Linda with a sadness and a strength that was nowhere to be found in the previous movie incarnation. In fact, this time out, Dunnock seemed to me to be the standout of the cast, which included George Segal as Biff and James Farentino as Happy. (It also had Gene Wilder playing nebbishy neighbor Bernard whose line readings at time seem eerily reminiscent of Leo Bloom's hysterics in The Producers two years later.) As a longtime fan of Cobb from many films, most notably On the Waterfront and 12 Angry Men, his Willy Loman disappointed me. Granted, he's much better than March, but he seemed to me to yell the role far too much — almost as if he'd time-traveled and channeled some Al Pacino performances. There's very little that is quiet about his Willy Loman, though he does portray the broken side of the man much better that March. What was interesting again is that of the two sons, I thought Farentino's Happy came off best, surprising since Biff is considered the more important role, but Segal just doesn't quite cut it.

Re-visiting Hoffman's 1985 version, after seeing the 1951 and 1966 versions, it seemed the most film-like of any of the filmed versions, but Hoffman himself proved even more mannered and over-the-top than I remembered. However, finally there was a Biff that earned his reputation in John Malkovich and Kate Reid's Linda may well be my favorite of the three interpretations of the roles I've seen. Reid's Linda always is self-assured and stands in stark contrast to even the good Dunnock version. She's protective of her unbalanced husband and ready to take her sons to task when they are mistreating Willy in her eyes. However, as Shakespeare wrote, "The play's the thing" and there is something to be said about seeing Death of a Salesman as it was intended — live on stage. Watching Brian Dennehy in the 1999 Broadway revival remains one of my best theatergoing experiences. Someday, perhaps I'll see another Willy Loman who captivates me the way Dennehy did, but for now, he is my Willy Loman — a large man who has the weight of the world on his shoulders, which Dennehy exemplified both physically and through his performance. He also was aided by another great Linda in Elizabeth Franz. Dennehy and Franz both won deserved Tonys though, as great as Franz was and even with the differences in mediums, I still think I might have liked Kate Reid's Linda best. I wish I could have seen her on stage.

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Sometimes it is difficult to get a true sense of what makes a play great based on a film version. Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night may, in my estimation, be the best American play ever written, but you would never get any indication of that from Sidney Lumet's static 1962 film adaptation. With the exception of Jason Robards jr., the only holdover from the original Broadway production, the actors seem wildly miscast, including the estimable Katharine Hepburn, who seems too fluttery and twitchy to capture the genuine pathos of Mary Tyrone, a character based on O'Neil's drug addicted mother. Lumet's lugubrious pacing and flat staging do little to highlight the strengths of the text. It was only after I'd seen Robert Falls' 2003 Broadway revival, starring Brian Dennehy, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robert Sean Leonard and Vanessa Redgrave (giving the greatest performance I've ever seen on any stage anywhere) that I think I was truly able to appreciate the brilliant qualities of O'Neill's definitive masterpiece.
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