What Arthur Miller Might Say About this Election
Mr. Alger is a freelance writer who is also the managing editor of PIF Magazine, an online literary journal.
Instead of paying attention to political pundits or those self-described Democratic or Republican consultants and their repetitive talking points, perhaps it would be more useful to consider what Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright Arthur Miller observed about acting and Presidential politics.
Miller, whose plays include Death of a Salesman, A View from the Bridge, and The Crucible, and was twice awarded the New York Drama Critics Award, was especially aware of the importance of a candidate’s acting ability in an age where every gesture and nuance is magnified through a television lens. In his book, On Politics and the Art of Acting, published in 2001, four years before his death, and shortly after the infamous Florida debacle involving George W. Bush and Al Gore, Miller turns his critical eye toward the symbiotic relationship of acting and politics.
Right off the bat, Miller acknowledges what most know intuitively, whether they admit it or not, that “It is not news that we are moved by our glandular reactions to a leader’s personality, his acting, than by proposals or by his moral character.”
Miller was well aware of style far outweighing substance, and his observations seem to have been further reinforced by so-called experts, meaning political science professors, grading the McCain/Obama debate in Nashville, as if the future of the nation could be determined by a report card. The categories in the New York Post the morning after the debate, in which such experts weighed in, included “Style, Delivered Punches, and"Connection with Viewers," leaving one unsure how each respective candidate might deal with, let’s say, a contemporary Cuban missile crisis, which may not be all that farfetched.
Miller states in On Politics and the Art of Acting that the “television lens becomes a microscope with the world as the eyepiece” and as a result, “the candidate’s self-control, his steadiness under fire, is dangerously magnified and becomes as crucial to his success as it is to the actor facing a thousand critics as he stands alone in a spotlight surrounded by darkness on a stage.”
While Miller quickly points out that we live in an age of entertainment, aware of the consequences of tragedy or farce, whether unintended or otherwise, he states, correctly, it would seem, that “Political leaders recognize in order to govern they must learn to act.”
A valuable lesson Miller learned about acting and the camera occurred while watching Clark Gable being filmed in the final scene of the movie The Misfits, based on Miller’s story. The scene called for Gable, sitting behind the steering wheel in a pickup truck, to gaze out lovingly at Marilyn Monroe with a look of supreme happiness and joy. The shot took place, Director John Houston yelled, “Cut,” and Miller was left confused because he didn’t see any discernible emotion on Gable’s face.
The next day, when Miller watched the scene on film, it was perfect, Gable’s facial expression conveyed all that was required. A pleasantly surprised Miller asked Gable how he managed to show such genuine emotion when it didn’t seem like he had done anything. Miller then said, referring to Gable, “He framed his eyes with both hands; ‘Movie acting is all up here,’ he said, indicating his eyes, ‘and the less the better.’ ”
Similar to a successful actor, Miller claimed “the single most important characteristic a politician needs to display is relaxed sincerity” and then he went on to list Humphrey Bogart, Jimmy Stewart, Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney, Richard Widmark, John Wayne and Robert Mitchum as all having “a certain underlying cool, a self-assurance that suggests the heroic.”
This, Miller stated was a key to Ronald Reagan’s success, that the dividing line between acting and actuality was gone and “what we want from leading men is quite the same thing as we demand of our leaders, the reassurance that we are in the hands of one who has mastered events and his own uncertainties.”
Miller goes on to credit Bill Clinton with also being a great actor, something that perpetually confused Republicans, especially when the former President still received so much press attention after leaving office.
“The mystery of the star performer can only leave the inquiring mind confused, resentful or blank, something that, of course, has the greatest political importance,” Miller writes. Referring to Clinton’s critics, Miller stated, “Again, what they don’t understand is that what a star says and even what he does, is incidental to people’s interest in him. When the click of emphatic association is made with a leader, logic has very little to do with it and virtue even less, at least up to a certain point.”
In comparing Clinton, to say Bush, or even Gore, Miller maintained that Clinton projects a personal interest toward individuals that comes across almost as a type of love, and like all great performers, it is abundantly clear that Clinton loves to act.
Miller writes about Clinton, “His love of acting may be his most authentic emotion, the realist thing about him, and, as with Reagan, there is no dividing line between his performance and himself -- he is his performance.”
And then, back to the 2000 campaign of Bush and Gore, which was similar to a play without a character the audience could truly cheer for, Miller declares it “seemed like an unpopularity contest, a competition for who was less disliked by more people than the other, a demonstration of negative consent.”
So, with less than a month to go before the election, as Miller says, “Not only is all the world a stage” and “we seem at times to have all but obliterated the fine line between the feigned and the real,” the American press has become the equivalent of theater critics and the audience, or electorate, will ultimately choose whether it feels more comfortable with a rising star or an old, reliable character actor.
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