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Fridays with Kevin McCarthy: Death of a Salesman (1951)

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been deep-diving into another of my favorite performers, Kevin McCarthy. While his name might not be the most familiar, fans of 1950s horror should immediately recognize his face, or heck, even fans of classic television. Trust me, the man worked prolifically. We’ll be taking a look at some of his work over the next few weeks here on Ticklish Business, but I first wanted to start with the movie that jump-started his career, Death of a Salesman.

Death of a Salesman follows Willie Loman (Fredric March), a man who finds himself cusping the wrong side of middle age with a job that doesn’t appreciate him and a personal life that’s at best, a struggle. Kevin McCarthy, Cameron Mitchell and Mildred Dunnock co-star in the film. Laslo Benedek directs from a script by Stanley Roberts. The film of course, is based on the legendary play of the same name by Arthur Miller.

This was somehow my first experience with Death of a Salesman (as an English major, I’m not sure how this happened!), so I went into the film blind. With that, I found it a bit of a complicated watch on a number of fronts.

Death of a Salesman, like many films faithfully adapted from stage plays, is heavily reliant on the attached acting talent. There’s a certain skill and charisma needed to handle the challenges inherent in the formula (longer and potentially static scenes, fewer locations, more sedate action, etc.). Diving into Death of a Salesman, this certainly rings true. There’s little “flash”, leaving the narrative to focus on very genuine (and fragile) human emotions. From start to finish though, Death of a Salesman feels very “method”.

It was at this point in film history that the Actors Studio began its rise to prominence. In fact, Kevin McCarthy, who received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination in Death of a Salesman is credited as being a founding member of the group. At the same time, the 1951 Academy Awards saw Death of a Salesman going head to head against A Streetcar Named Desire which featured performances by other Actors Studio luminaries, Marlon Brando, Karl Malden and Kim Hunter.

The revolutionary work being done at the Actors Studio, particularly as represented in mainstream culture by Marlon Brando and James Dean, is considered vital to the evolution of acting in Hollywood cinema.

In watching Death of a Salesman, it’s very evident the film comes out of this same theatrically based movement. However, the performances are so heavy that parts feel almost over-the-top during a first time watch. A great deal of the early action is lacking the naturalistic charisma of other period luminaries like Marlon Brando and Paul Newman and ends up feeling almost theatrical. While these moments would work sitting in a crowded theater, in the personal nature of cinema the awkwardness does occasionally stand-out.

However, everything smoothly gels going into the tragic explosion that is the final act. It’s commonly said that one scene can clinch an Oscar nomination, and this is very true for McCarthy. As mentioned, Death of a Salesman was Kevin McCarthy’s big screen breakout. His filmography cites one movie before this, but the role is uncredited. At this point, the young actor was largely a stage performer and came to this film after playing Biff Loman on the London stage opposite the legendary Paul Muni as Willy. 

McCarthy easily taps into the power of Biff’s emotions in the final act: the betrayal, the pressure and the frustration at not just his father, but also himself. It’s a layered and complex performance and as the action reached its pinnacle, I found myself disappointed that McCarthy never reached this level again, despite his more than 60 year film career. 

The generational struggle in this version of Death of a Salesman did feel especially poignant, particularly coming during the 1950s. There’s a clear awareness of the passage of time in the story and the memories of the ‘good old days’ are so strong. This is thanks to Fredric March’s insightful casting. March brings with him associations of Classic Hollywood which a performer like Lee J. Cobb (the original Willy Loman on Broadway) doesn’t. This adds a new layer to the narrative. Not only is this story tapping into Willy’s yearning for the past and Biff’s feelings of inadequacy, but at the same time this can be applied to America (in particular, Hollywood) at this point in history. 

As I already mentioned, as the 1940s turned into the 1950s, Hollywood was beginning to shift. New, rebellious and more naturalistic New York actors were quickly making names for themselves. At the same time, filmmakers like Jules Dassin, Elia Kazan, and Nicholas Ray were also coming to prominence throughout the decade. These men were telling new and innovative stories and with these brash young performers to tell these stories, they were stretching ideas of what a film could be.

The 1950s also saw the industry plunged into turmoil thanks to the arrival of television. Keep in mind, I Love Lucy premiered in 1951. With the explosion of TV, there were suddenly questions about what audiences wanted. What would it take to get them out of their houses? Suddenly, when factoring in new talent, new technology and new stories to tell, Hollywood found themselves pulled kicking and screaming out of the security and comfort they enjoyed before World War II.

Death of a Salesman puts a human face on these feelings of anxiety and the sense of dread which comes from the passage of time. With roles going back to the silent era, Fredric March was one of the grand old men of Hollywood’s golden age. However, as Willy Loman he’s forced to confront the fact that the old days are gone. Willy’s not the man he once was. At the same time, there’s the continuing march of change happening in the industry around him. There’s new young talent hitting the scene and things were changing faster than most could comprehend. 

Death of a Salesman is not an easy watch and this isn’t one for a lazy day of viewing. While the movie hasn’t been remembered with the same fondness as some of its contemporaries, Death of a Salesman is a fascinating cultural snapshot of a very specific era in Hollywood history. At the same time, the acting in this picture is something to behold. Fans of the new wave of Hollywood cinema hitting during the fifties should definitely add this one to their lists.

Death of a Salesman is available to stream through Amazon Prime.

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