Salesman Willy Loman is in a crisis. He's about to lose his job, he can't pay his bills, and his sons Biff and Happy don't respect him and can't seem to live up to their potential. He wonders what went wrong and how he can make things up to his family.Written by
According to Director Volker Schlöndorff: "The Lomans could have been my family. They were very Central European. It is poignant. That is enough. It's Greek tragedy, not a Christian tale of guilt and retribution." See more »
When Willy sits on the chair 120 minutes into the movie, Biff throws himself down at his feet and clutches his shirt. In one shot, Biff has his left arm on Willy's right shoulder outside his arm, in the next shot, he has his arm on Willy's right shoulder inside his arm, in the next shot he has it outside his arm again. See more »
I get so lonely - especially when business is bad and there's nobody to talk to. I get the feeling that I'll never sell anything anymore, that I won't make a living for you, or a business, a business for the boys.
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Because of its complex nature, its many morals, its non-linear flashbacks, and its over-the-top characters, I express extreme doubts when believing that Arthur Miller's renowned Death of a Salesman was meant to be read. The iconic play has won several awards, was performed in the 1940's over seven-hundred times resulting in four revivals on Broadway, and has continued to be translated and performed in countries other than the United States, where it originated. For a play, the story of Willy Loman's dysfunctional family has had unprecedented success. As a film, it has had its share of setbacks.
To my knowledge, never has a theatrical production of the film been made, which is depressing to note, seeing as directors like Roman Polanski have proved that they can transition a play to a screen-production with little to no constraints. What we were fortunate to get were not only several low-budget, TV renditions of the story Death of a Salesman, but we are grateful to get a telling of the story on film, written by the original author, Arthur Miller, made for the CBS network in September 1985. The story is kept the same, albeit some metaphorical and symbolical changes, as it revolves around Willy Loman, a naive, broken man who has failed at the game of life and business and has halted his family's growth because they are so committed to either boosting their leader's confidence or keeping him from sinking.
Willy's long suffering wife is Linda, played by Kate Reid, a miserable, shell of a woman so determined to help her husband through uncertain times she's forgotten how to help and better herself. Their two sons are two equally broken men living at home well into their thirties. They are Biff (John Malkovich, a gifted actor, who gave a terrific performance as Lenny in another acclaimed novel, Of Mice in Men in 1992), a football star brought down by the weight of his failure of a father, and Happy (Stephen Lang), a cocky ladies man replicating who Willy the characteristics Willy once gleefully held; brashness, confidence, and the ability to strike a deal.
The main problem with Willy is his naivety towards the business world and to himself; he continues to convince himself that the only thing necessary to succeed in business is a firm handshake and a high likability factor. By doing this, he convinces himself that by possessing those very important traits he can do anything, and yet he hasn't. He is roadblocked by not only that, but by his falsifying sense of optimism, telling himself and everyone around him that he is "not a dime a dozen" but Willy Loman, a unique individual. He is only more upset when he sees how his best friend Charley (Charles Durning) and brother Ben (Louis Zorich) have gone on to lead happy, successful lives with limitless wealth and opportunities, and he is confined to his cramped apartment, told to be himself which does nothing but let everyone down.
Willy is portrayed by Dustin Hoffman, a character actor with a barrage of films under his belt. Hoffman's performance of Willy is definitely admirable, but it isn't as layered as one would hope. He is written efficiently as a character victim by his own delusions, but several times does Hoffman seem like he is teetering on the lines of self-parody rather than seriousness, almost the equivalent to a Woody Allen archetype. Nonetheless, he is completely capable in this role, and when he hits the right notes, specifically in Charlie's office and during Willy's final monologue with the family (more commonly known as his "dime a dozen" speech), he truly shows what power and strength he brings to the table.
But perhaps the film can be known for not just taking a complex, theme-driven play and creating it into a very, very intriguing film, but also for bringing more style to a made-for-TV movie than anyone ever expected. The replication of the inherent seamy, humidity-soaked New York atmosphere is stunningly portrayed, with Willy Loman's listless agenda to only heighten the gloomy setting. The other aspect is the way the filmmakers constructed the environment. I've read that the set of Death of a Salesman is mainly composed of an old play setting, most likely from a version of the play, meaning several buildings don't have roofs, several backdrops are artificial, and several background buildings are one-dimensional cutouts designed to only give the look of the environment. This isn't as disconcerting as it sounds, but it livens the film to a new height, making it closer to the feeling of an actual play rather than abandoning the stage-feel to favor a more polished cinematic feel.
Schlöndorff's directorial efforts to make Death of a Salesman a functioning film and playwright Arthur Miller taking his personal material into his own hands to give fans and newcomers the version he wants on screen have both worked wonderfully. This is a complex picture, doing different things for different people and showing each person a different theme or meaning. Whether it be a commentary on the business world, a tragic story of a once-successful businessman who was never "once-successful," a picture showing an American's tragic existence, a failed American Dream, an insight into the tragic hero, or how one man can collectively bring down his entire family by his own delusional self, this is a gripping story made into a surprisingly efficient film with performances of impact and style to laud.
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Kate Reid, John Malkovich, Stephen Lang, Charles Durning, and Louis Zorich. Directed by: Volker Schlöndorff.
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