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Scott Larson

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Maude (1922-2009)

I couldn’t help but chuckle while reading Beatrice Arthur’s obituaries. The copy writers pretty much all led with the fact that she was some kind of feminist television icon at a critical point in American pop culture. And the headline writers pretty much all managed to work in words like “battle-ax” and “sharp-tongued.” Beautiful.

Interesting to me is that most of the obits identified her primarily as Dorothy in The Golden Girls, and that was certainly her longest/most recent gig. Indeed, even my own parents would certainly remember her more fondly as Dorothy than as Maude. But to me, she will always be Maude.

The character of Maude Findlay was one of those sitcom creations where the actor and the character seemed to mesh perfectly. Arthur’s delivery was so pitch perfect and Maude’s personal life was messy enough that Maude seemed to be a real person. This was quite an accomplishment because, in the abstract, she seemed to be a TV executive’s formula. Her progenitor, Archie Bunker, himself was a formula. Take a reactionary conservative blue-collar type, surround him with a bleeding-heart wife and daughter and an over-educated liberal son-in-law and bring up a hot topical issue each week for them to bat around. In All in the Family’s second season, Arthur had a guest appearance as Edith Bunker’s cousin, who came to help out when the two men in the family are stricken with (how’s this for topicality?) the flu. Clearly, Maude was introduced as a formidable feminist foil for Carroll O’Connor’s Archie, and she was a hit—acting as a surrogate mouthpiece for many annoyed women (and more than a few men) in the audience. Later that season, the Bunkers were sent to upstate New York to attend the wedding of Maude’s daughter Carole, in an episode that was a virtual pilot for a spinoff series.

While Archie Bunker was an easy target for the liberal series creator Norman Lear, the question was whether Maude could be funny, as Lear’s world view might parallel hers too closely. But one need not have worried. Lear was not any more afraid to lampoon liberals as he was conservatives. Both Maude and Carole (Marcia Rodd on the All in the Family episode, Adrienne Barbeau in the series) exhibited most of the foibles associated with people on the left, including a penchant for divorce and remarriage. (Maude’s put-upon husband Walter, played by the perfectly cast Bill Macy, was her fourth.) As with All in the Family, issues of the day were regularly introduced as plot points. But, just as Archie Bunker became a flesh and blood character who, perhaps more than his creators intended, was ultimately sympathetic, Maude was a three-dimensional character who was neither archetype nor paragon. In a memorable two-parter, Maude grappled with an unintended change-of-life pregnancy. In the end, she aborted. Two months later, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the Roe v. Wade decision.

The writer of that episode was a woman named Susan Harris, and 13 years later Arthur starred in another durable sitcom, created by Harris. If Maude made a reputed feminist a popular character, The Golden Girls made senior citizenship cool. In a way, this new sitcom was Friends (nine years before Friends actually debuted) for geezers. The humor derived from the interplay of an ensemble cast of types: the dumb one, the slut, the wisecracker and Arthur’s character, the straight man. And what a straight man Arthur was, in both her big series. She could get laughs with a mere look. Except her looks were not mere. Her sidelong glances at some inanity spoken by another actor spoke more than most Shakespearean soliloquies. In most cases, the look would be enough. But there was usually some caustic comment to follow, which was the icing on the cake. She did for exasperated annoyance what Jack Benny did for bewildered bemusement.

Given her dominant physical presence and magnificent voice, it is no surprise that Arthur started out on the stage. It was in the play Ulysses in Nighttown that she first worked with Carroll O’Connor. Off Broadway, she appeared in The Threepenny Opera. On Broadway, she appeared in Fiddler on the Roof and won a Tony for playing Angela Lansbury’s sidekick in Mame. And that same role, as the dipsomaniac actor Vera Charles, was her one sort of standout role on the big screen. Arthur did not appear in a lot of feature films. She had un-credited bits in Sidney Lumet’s That Kind of Woman and in Mel Brooks’s History of the World: Part I and appeared the movies Lovers and Other Strangers (which gave us the Carpenters wedding standard “For All We Know”), For Better or Worse (as the mother of Jason Alexander and James Woods) and Enemies of Laughter (as Peter Falk’s wife). That leaves us with Mame as Arthur’s main cinematic imprint. It was directed, as was the stage version, by Arthur’s husband at the time, Gene Saks. On the screen, Lansbury was replaced by Lucille Ball, which makes the movie’s main interest the opportunity to see two of the small screen’s great icons working together. But Ball was strangely miscast and, coming early during the run of Maude, it was odd to audiences to see Arthur playing such a completely different character from her TV one. Despite its great promise, the movie flopped.

Thanks to Eric Golub, writing on the Big Hollywood blog, I am reminded of an obscure Bea Arthur movie reference from 1994. In the movie Airheads, Brendan Fraser and Adam Sandler inadvertently wind up in a hostage-taking situation. As Golub recalled, “they decide to make their demands so ridiculous that they will have the groundwork for an insanity plea. They request a football helmet filled with cottage cheese, a six foot baby bottle, and as the hostage negotiator quizzically and impatiently asks them, ‘Naked pictures of Bea Arthur?'” One can imagine one of Arthur’s patented withering looks.

Bea Arthur also starred in some TV movies (P.O.P., My First Love) and starred in the short-lived 1983 sitcom Amanda’s, which was sort of an American knockoff of Fawlty Towers. She also did occasional guest spots on other sitcoms, like the Malcolm in the Middle and the Golden Girls spinoff Empty Nest. She played the widow of Dave Barry’s agent in Dave’s World, and her last appearance was as Larry David’s mother on Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Bea Arthur, you were truly one of a kind.

-S.L., 30 April 2009

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