Her Own Woman

UPDATED 02/26/1996 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 02/26/1996 at 01:00 AM EST

DON'T GET HER WRONG. "I DEFINITELY had a happy childhood," Rebecca Miller insists. "But I was terrified most of the time." Terrified not of her parents, playwright Arthur Miller and photographer Inge Morath, but of the mere thought of venturing down to the cellar of the Roxbury, Conn., farmhouse where her parents, married 34 years now, still reside. "That's where Lucifer was living," says Miller, or so she believed until age 11, when curiosity triumphed over fear, and she finally went downstairs and found nothing but cobwebs.

Yet Miller, now 32, remained mindful of her imaginary demon, and in 1991 she decided to write a screenplay based on those childhood fears. Five years and several revisions later, her script is now a film titled Angela. Angela—played by 11-year-old Miranda Stuart Rhyne—is a daydreamer who believes the devil not only lives in her basement but causes her mother's manic-depressive behavior. (Angela's mother bears no relation to the filmmaker's own, Miller is quick to point out.)

The movie is dark and somewhat downbeat, but it does have its fans. Made in 1994 for just $800,000, Angela premiered at 1995's Sundance Film Festival, where it won the prestigious Filmmakers' Trophy—and earned critical raves. 'Angela's early scenes," wrote The New York Times' Stephen Holden, "beautifully capture a childhood intuition of a world where bogeymen lurk and angels hover." The film recently opened in L.A. and New York City—where Miller shares a SoHo apartment with her boyfriend, a college philosophy instructor she identifies only as Miguel. Angela will soon open in three more cities.

Mom and Dad couldn't be more pleased. "Angela is totally original," declares Arthur, 80, who has a son, Robert, and daughter, Jane, by his first wife, Mary Grace Slattery. The author of Death of a Salesman and The Crucible claims he exerted no creative influence on his youngest child. "We have an unspoken agreement that she is not going to sit on my doorstep," he says. "She has her own attitude and way of thinking, and that's fine. I never projected what she should be."

Indeed, even as a child, Miller fille expressed her own ideas about what she wanted to do. When she was 13, she had, she recalls, "a fervent wish to get baptized" like her Catholic friends down the road. Her father reluctantly approved. Rebecca, who had been raised as neither a Jew (like her father) nor a Protestant (her mother's faith), took a crash course in Catholicism. But at 16, she says, she "lost interest." By then she had immersed herself in drawing and was being tutored by a neighbor, sculptor Philip Grausman. After graduating from Yale (class of '84) with a B.A. in art, she began to sell her paintings, which feature images from her dreams.

Miller's art provided only a meager income; she supported herself for a while by working in a Brooklyn bookstore and as a part-time nanny. Then her father's agent, Sam Cohn, whose other clients include Woody Allen and Sigourney Weaver, suggested that Miller try acting. On her second audition, she landed the female lead in NBC's The Murder of Mary Phagan, a 1988 miniseries starring Jack Lemmon. When critics praised her as "talented" and "first-rate," she enrolled in acting classes and won her first stage role, as Anya in a Brooklyn production of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, followed by small parts in the 1991 film Regarding Henry and 1994's Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle. Yet Miller, as an actress, remained "uncomfortable with having to be so concerned with what you look like." She felt more confident behind the camera. In 1990, Miller directed Florence, a short film about a woman so empathetic that when her neighbor gets amnesia, she develops it too. Impressed, the Cincinnati Ensemble Theater invited her to direct a 1992 revival of her father's 1964 play After the Fall, loosely based on his marriage to second wife Marilyn Monroe. She agreed—but not without hesitation. "Though I'm not embarrassed by my association with my father," she says, "I also don't go diving toward it."

Bolstered by Florence's warm reception at regional film festivals, she plunged ahead, shopping the script around and hoping she'd be hired to direct it. Producer Ron Kastner (White Man's Burden) granted her wish, impressed not only by Miller's screenplay but by her "infectious energy" and willingness to slash more than half the film's original $2 million budget. Anna Thompson, who plays Angela's disturbed mother, Mae, praises Miller's "quiet, tremendously strong intelligence" on the film's Catskills locations. "We were staying in this crummy motel, where you had to beg for a new towel every day," says Thompson (the scarred prostitute in Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven), "but nobody complained because we had complete trust in Rebecca."

Now she's seeking backers for her second screenplay, Rose and the Snake, about a girl's coming of age. Naturally, she plans to direct it herself. "It'll be a lot easier if Angela earns a couple of bucks," she realizes. "But," she adds, "I think I'll make it anyway."

MICHAEL A. LIPTON
ALLISON LYNN in New York City

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