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Image Entertainment presents
"Be liked, and you will never want."
DVD ReviewA great play poorly produced can seem like nothing more than a grab bag of clichés, Hamlet reduced to its Gilligan's Island incarnation. But done well, and done right, the writing can be reinvigorated, made modern, relevant to new audiences. Just because you've seen Laurence Olivier as Hamlet, for instance, is insufficient reason not to see Mel Gibson, or Kenneth Branagh, or Ethan Hawke.
Willy Loman may not quite be at the top of the pantheon with the Prince of Denmark, but academic arguments about American tragedy aside, Death of a Salesman is about as fine and influential a play ever written in this country. The lumbering image of Willy, the salesman worn out by his work, his sons, his life, is an enduring one, and Lee J. Cobb established the template for Willy in the original Broadway production. As physical types go, later Broadway Willys—George C. Scott and, more recently, Brian Dennehy—bear marked similarities to Cobb. But what if Willy weren't a great wounded bear of a man, but a scrappy little fighter?
That's the Willy of this version, as portrayed by Dustin Hoffman, and a few minor textual changes make the transformation complete. (Here, Willy is bothered because he overheard someone referring to him as a shrimp, not a walrus—Willy, literally, as the low man.) Hoffman and most of the rest of this cast appeared in the play on Broadway, and subsequently brought on German director Volker Schlöndorff to create a filmed version, originally shown on CBS. Schlöndorff has found a rather successful visual style for the piece—it's not a purely realistic bit of writing, and the artistic conceits of Miller's play might not have survived a documentary-like approach. So here the Loman house in Brooklyn is without walls, the apartment houses of the city pressing in, looming over the family, shutting out the light, both literally and metaphorically. And the language of cinema allows the action to flow seamlessly between present and past, the transitions that Willy continually makes inside of his own head. Schlöndorff 's efforts get exquisite support from his production team, which included production designer Tony Walton and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus.
The stage roots of the play and the production are evident, but Hoffman gets a huge advantage over other actors in the same part: this Willy gets to whisper. It helps establish the emotional intimacy between the actors, and the four principals very much seem like a family. Kate Reid is fine as Linda, Willy's doormat of a wife, who's rough and stern with her boys when their father isn't around; Stephen Lang can be a little stagy and mannered, but he's a suitable Happy; and best of all is John Malkovich, as Willy's older boy, Biff. Malkovich is so good, in fact, that at times he almost tips the balance of the play; it's like being more fascinated with Cordelia than with Lear. (Nearly as good is Charles Durning, who was dating Hoffman on screen not too long before this production, in Tootsie—the shorthand between the two actors makes their testy, neighborly relationship thoroughly believable and specific.)
But Hoffman is the straw that stirs the drink, and after all those term papers and high school discussions, it's rather startling to have the character so thoroughly reinvented. The hunger to be loved, the complete lack of any self-confidence, is what shines through in Hoffman's Willy—he's transformed himself physically, a shuffling gait, a throaty voice, bad teeth and unkempt hair. (The makeup is especially worth mentioning—it's very convincing, taking hair off of Hoffman's head, and adding a substantial amount to Malkovich's.) This Willy has been literally and figuratively passed over his whole life—he's the arrogant father hollering down at the coach from the stands at the little league game, and truth be told, he's not a very good salesman. Was he ever? He says so, but even in his fantasies, the truths have a way of seeping in, his knowledge on some level that his credo of personal attractiveness—"It's not what you do, Ben, it's who you know"—just isn't right.
Hoffman's anger is grounded and frightening, a man flailing—"You can't eat the orange and throw the peel away. A man is not a piece of fruit!"—but he's even better when he has his late, misguided epiphany about securing Biff's future. This may not be the Willy that you first conjure up when you think of the play, and it may not entirely displace the Willy Loman that you first encountered, but it's one of the great American actors leaving his imprint indelibly on a legendary part, and amen to that.
Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A
Image Transfer Review: Originally shot for television, this production will look right at home on your set; unfortunately, the print used for transfer to DVD is in pretty poor condition. There are lots of scratches, bits of debris, sometimes even some missing frames; the colors have faded and blurred, too, compromising Michael Ballhaus's fine work. This play and this production deserved better.
Image Transfer Grade: C-
Audio Transfer Review: The actors take advantage of the technical tools at their disposal—they don't have to project to the back of a huge Broadway theater—but too often, when they're speaking softly, they're inaudible. Other than this troubling dynamics problem, the audio transfer is a clean one, with little hissing and popping.
Audio Transfer Grade: C
Disc ExtrasStatic menu
Scene Access with 17 cues and remote access
Also on hand are still galleries, one each for the feature and the documentary—they each run about thirty seconds, with a dozen or so photographs.
Extras Grade: B
Final CommentsPut away the Monarch Notes, forget what your high school English teacher droned on about, and fire up the DVD player—Death of a Salesman is resolutely a piece of theater, and it's been filmed with style and visual imagination in this production. The shoddy picture quality is a disappointment, but the acting values are not, and the accompanying documentary is full of many rewards as well.
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