By Gerald Peary
The cinema verité masterpiece is among the first nonfiction theatrical features to chronicle “regular” people going about their everyday lives.
Paraphrasing Arthur Miller, attention must be paid to such a man as Paul Brennan, the protagonist of the Maysles brothers’ classic 1969 documentary, Salesman. That’s why in July 1990, 30 years ago, I drove down Blue Hill Avenue in Mattapan, and arrived at a Gothic brick hospital of gargantuan proportions, a perfect primal setting if Stanley Kubrick had wished to use it for The Shining.
“Most of our patients come here with three strikes already against them,” said Kathleen Barry, nursing supervisor at Mattapan’s Chronic Disease Hospital, where the sick are wards of the city of Boston. In the case of Jamaica Plains’s Brennan—bedridden, tortured by rheumatoid arthritis—the count was more like four or five strikes. The forgotten star of a heralded movie. When the Maysles, Albert and David, researched Salesman, they came upon this Willy Loman-as-Barry Fitzgerald peddling illustrated Bibles door to door via colorful blasts of Irish-American oratory and blarney. With camera and tape recorder, the Maysles followed after.
The cinema verité masterpiece is among the first nonfiction theatrical features to chronicle “regular” people going about their everyday lives. In this case, the Maysles filmed Brennan and three co-employees of the marginally reputable Mid-American Bible Company, ringing doorbells house to house through Catholic and blue-collar Boston and Miami. Too bad Flannery O’Connor, who died in 1964, never got a look. She would have appreciated this true-life complement to Wise Blood.
“The whole film hangs on Paul,” Albert Maysles told me in a telephone interview. But until a 1990 showing of Salesman on PBS’s POV, nobody at the hospital knew a thing about Paul Brennan’s hallowed movie past. “This is fascinating,” said Nurse Barry. “We don’t exactly have many celebrities at Mattapan Chronic.”
“Did you know Ray Bolger? Frank Fontaine?” Two excited volunteers, Anna and Marie, tried to pump Brennan for Irish-Catholic show-biz stories.
Mark Jacobson, a medical social worker, did say that Brennan acknowledged a documentary had been made about him, “But we weren’t able to confirm it. Paul is so very quiet and laid back. When he discussed it, it wasn’t like bragging.”
When I came to his bedside to interview him, bragging wasn’t the issue. Talking was. Even one-word answers came hard for Brennan, who faded in and away. Seemingly, he was an actor once in a theatrical production of Samuel Butler’s novel The Way of All Flesh, and the staging might have been in Boston. Or in New York. Other plays? “I don’t remember.” Why that play? “Peculiar title.”
Mayles said, “The last time I really spent time with Paul was four years ago, when my brother, David, was alive. We took him out to dinner to a pretty fancy restaurant near the John Hancock Building.” Recently, the filmmaker sent Paul a letter saying how much he missed him. “Our father grew up in Dorchester as the only Jewish guy in an Irish neighborhood, and he always thought he didn’t succeed because jobs were very political and he wasn’t Irish. As a post office clerk in the Federal Building for twenty-nine years, he never made more than $50 a week.
“Like our father, Paul was not made for the job he ended up with. He was too soulful a character to be on the road pushing a product, even if the product he was pushing is the Bible.”
“To me, Salesman is a movie about failure,” said Lilian Brennan, a retired Arlington secretary who divorced Paul decades ago because he was an alcoholic. “Paul had a very good personality. He was intelligent. But it was one job after another. At the end of the movie, he gives up on his selling. That’s the story of his life.”
The Brennans had already separated at the time of making Salesman. His wife found out about it when her estranged husband showed up unannounced with a film crew at their daughter’s wedding. Because Lilian Brennan refused to sign a release, none of the wedding footage ended up in the Maysles’s documentary.
“I wouldn’t marry Paul again, or live with him again,” she told me, “but I have a lot of sympathy for him.” A note from his ex-wife about Salesman on TV was taped up in the hospital ward: “Paul would like to watch the film. Please turn it on for him.”
Paul Brennan died there on August 27, 1990. Thirty years ago today.
Gerald Peary is a Professor Emeritus at Suffolk University, Boston, curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of nine books on cinema, writer-director of the documentaries For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism and Archie’s Betty, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess. His new feature documentary, The Rabbi Goes West, co-directed by Amy Geller, is playing at film festivals around the world.