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Looking within to see the world without

Rebecca Miller looks to chart frustration, ambition and transcendence via her stories about three women in 'Personal Velocity.'

November 24, 2002|John Clark | Special to The Times

It's hard not to resent Rebecca Miller. After all, she's tall and thin, with legs up to there and ringlets framing a lovely face. She's also Arthur Miller's daughter and Daniel Day-Lewis' wife (they have two young children), and she's made a name for herself by writing and directing last year's Grand Jury Prize winner at the Sundance Film Festival, "Personal Velocity," which opens Wednesday.

What's even more envy-inducing is that the film, based on a collection of her short stories, exhibits sympathy for women who are a lot less fortunate than Miller is. The first segment (the movie is a triptych) stars Kyra Sedgwick as Delia, a promiscuous high school girl who marries young, bears three children and then runs from her abusive husband straight into a dead-end job waiting tables. In the second story, Parker Posey plays Greta, a cookbook editor whose work with a literary star unleashes her suppressed ambitions, driving her back toward her estranged father and away from her loving husband. In the final piece, Fairuza Balk is Paula, a disaffected young woman whose kindness to a hitchhiker puts her unwanted pregnancy in a new perspective.

Miller, 39, says that there's a little bit of her in these women, but not in the proportions people might think.

"Many think I'm Greta," Miller says, alluding to that character's privileged upbringing, but she believes that would be incorrect. "It's Delia. I think there is a part of me that says in my head some of the things that she says [out loud]. I think we all do. But I think there's more to it than that. I think that for me and many women -- and again, it's a matter of degree; she's an extreme form of it, because she's the school slut, and I definitely was not the school slut -- the whole identification with sexuality, where does that leave you later in life? Who is that woman when her identity has been formed by sexuality so completely?"

That identification with your sexuality is especially true, notes Sedgwick, "if you're attractive or you've gotten positive reinforcement for your body or your accouterments." The actress feels compelled to add at this point that the "spectacular-looking" Miller was a commanding physical presence on the set.

Despite her intellectual, physical and genetic gifts, Miller's personal velocity has not had a steady upward trajectory. She is the daughter of Miller's third wife, Inge Morath, and was reared and educated in Connecticut, majoring in English literature and painting at Yale. She went to Germany on a fellowship, and there she first considered filmmaking as a career, though it was an outgrowth of her interest in painting and therefore arty, experimental, devoted to dreams.

She returned to the U.S., where she showed her paintings and began acting. She appeared in such films as "Regarding Henry" (which helped her finance a short, "Florence"), "Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle" and "Consenting Adults." All the while she was writing screenplays.

She says of acting: "I was trying to do it as well as I could, but I always knew that it was not going to be my life. It was great because I could support myself and I also learned about the process of filmmaking and directing. I gained this great respect for actors, which I didn't have before. I had seen it more from the filmmaker's perspective, the visual aspect of it."

In 1995, Miller directed her first feature, "Angela," about a young girl who believes that if she purifies herself, she can cure her mentally ill mother. It won the filmmakers' trophy and cinematography awards at Sundance. But it was followed by years of development hell (though it was during this period that she married Day-Lewis, who starred in an on-screen version of her father's play "The Crucible"). It was when two projects fell through, one of them in pre-production, that she decided to get off the development merry-go-round. At the time she was living in Italy with her firstborn while her husband was shooting "Gangs of New York."

"I just sat down and thought I don't want to live this way anymore," she says. "I have a compulsion to tell stories. I write every day, all day. I write screenplays, which nobody will give me money to make. Why don't I just try writing fiction? At that point I wasn't thinking so much about publishing as mental health, really. I was living in Europe. I was kind of out of touch with everybody. Nobody was expecting anything of me."

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