The narrator's profoundly elegiac timbre is the best thing about this Arthur Miller series

The Lure's Ed Harris stormed past the usual threshold of BBC Radio 4 magnetism.

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In the second of four plays marking Arthur Miller’s centenary (2.15pm, 2 August), a 35-year-old Miller visited Hollywood with his friend Elia Kazan, who had just directed Death of a Salesman. Attempting to sell an early version of On the Waterfront to one of the studios, they discover an industry that is “scared of words”, as Kazan spits.

Should Miller be willing to turn “the gangsters into communists and put some jokes in” then the film might be made. He wasn’t. There were disdain-dense exchanges about the House Un-American Activities Committee, then at its most feverish. Kazan would go on to name former members of New York’s Group Theatre. “I appreciate what America has enabled me to do,” he reasons, “and I’m not throwing it away on a lot of hot air!”

It made me think of a time I interviewed the Coen brothers when they made Hail Caesar! – a parody of 1950s Hollywood. At one point the film features what could be the Hollywood Ten accused communists, sitting about impotently debating and eating biscuits. When I mentioned the scene, Ethan Coen rolled his eyes saying that while the blacklist was “terrible”, being an actual Marxist-Leninist at that time was a “bit of a dunderheaded thing”. (Never assume sympathy for the post-war communist with modern-American liberal film-makers.)

It’s the speaking voice of the narrator that’s the best thing about this Miller series, which was made with the non-profit LA Theatre Works. Who is this guy, I thought, as a profoundly elegiac timbre stormed past the usual threshold of BBC magnetism. Well, it’s Ed Harris.

A couple of days before, John Malkovich had appeared on Today to lament the death of Sam Shepard, speaking in his sly-as-the-devil way: a voice with its own low temperature that sounded entirely at odds with the others on the show. I thought it a shame, incidentally, that nobody mentioned Shepard’s teeth – so over-crowded and mega-snaggled. One image of the actor-playwright lingers indelibly: him shyly staring across a wheat field in 1978’s Days of Heaven, his mouth a dark complication in an otherwise perfectly handsome face.

“His voice was authentic,” insisted Malkovich. Ditto his teeth. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She presents The Film Programme on BBC Radio 4. She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon

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