Tuesday, May 5, 2009
In Appreciation: Bea Arthur
(May 13th, 1922—April 25th, 2009)
In the final season of The Golden Girls, it is revealed that Rose’s (Betty White) husband Charlie may have slept with Blanche (Rue McClanahan). The news horrifies Rose but Blanche produces records that keep track of her ‘social’ activities to ease any fears. Rose then asks her if she didn’t sleep with all the men why is it that the books are labelled B.E.D. Blanche replies that it stands for her initials—Blanche Elizabeth Devereaux. Dorothy (Bea Arthur) who has been watching this interplay then quips a deadpan yet classic line, ‘your initials spell B.E.D?’ and gives the audience a kind of half-winking look and you can’t help but erupting with laughter.
Bea Arthur was to elicit such smart and tart-tongued dialogue over the thirty-eight years she spent doing comedy. The Golden Girls series itself was not the start of her immense relevance as a comedienne but rather a continuance. Her deep voice and imposing height had prevented her from landing the classical feminine roles on and off Broadway but were the very tools that landed her fame on television, a medium she was initially skeptical of.
In 1971, her friend and All in the Family producer Norman Lear asked her to guest-star in an episode as Maude Findlay, Edith Bunker’s (Jean Stapleton) cousin. Lear wanted the character to be the direct opposite of Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor), hence modern, feminist and loud in intent. Arthur, who was near fifty at the time—an age where most careers have already peaked, proved to be a smash and the following year landed her a series of her own simply called Maude.
The rest, as they say, is history but the success of the show is deserving of real analysis and not just clichés. Maude was the first real outspoken female lead character on American television. She was several-times divorced, spoke back to her husband and the intimacy of the conversations was at times shocking. Of course, Lear’s savvy as a producer was to mimic the wider popular culture and foment subtle change through the writing and his characters. Arthur fleshed out Maude as a real woman, not the stereo-types that dominated the screen in the 1950s. Maude was not the model housewife nor always had dinner waiting for Walter (Bill Macy) and would often threaten him with the catch-phrase, ‘God’ll getcha for that, Walter’. Through Maude, Arthur connected to an audience of people, mostly older women and feminists who felt due representation of their issues had finally captured real interest. It’s most definitive moment though came when Maude had television’s first abortion (November 1972), a mere two months before the landmark Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court decision. Arthur, in subsequent interviews, exclaimed surprise at the heated reaction of the letters she received from fans for and against the decision. It showed though that television didn’t operate in a vacuum but helped to foment a conversation among individuals. Through it all the show was a hit in the ratings and she won an Emmy for her lead performance in 1977. Watching the episodes on YouTube, one senses that Arthur was being led unwillingly into the type of celebrity that the stage hadn’t prepared her for. She hadn’t expected to have a real impact on lives but more so the reverse; drawing inspiration from the lives of others to help shape her character. Never one to overstay her welcome, Arthur left Maude in 1978 after six years, thus ending the series. She hoped to get back on stage and never expected to do another series again.
All that changed in 1985 when NBC had an idea for a series with four older women living together in Miami and the role of Dorothy Zbornak was being floated around as a ‘Bea Arthur type’. The role proved to be a pivotal one; the character being the lynchpin for everyone else. Dorothy was level-headed, harsh yet fair and good in a crisis. Her daughter-mother relationship with Sophia (the late Estelle Getty) is among the most revered in television still and her dealings with her ex-husband Stan (the late Herb Edelman) garnered many guffaws. Dorothy’s relationships with these two characters are so realistically portrayed that it allowed the series to defy the odds of success. I doubt now that the show, or Maude for that matter, could thrive in the Neilson ratings without Arthur’s presence being able to command a slight awe yet grasp on comedic timing. Her one-liners are priceless: telling Rose that her daughter moves faster than Marcus Allen after sleeping with her son (Michael) after knowing him for one day. Intimating that Blanche had landed on her back more than the American Gladiators. Telling the girls how Stan surprised her with a wedding ring in a wine glass and it turned up three days later…on the Home Shopping Network when Rose’s naiveté presses the issue. The caustic wit with which these lines are delivered and her serious expressions remain the true legacy of her work and she was honoured with another Emmy in 1988. As in the case of Maude, she left the show feeling it had explored all its avenues and couldn’t possibly top itself.
The influence of The Golden Girls is palpable enough, from the several American spin-off shows and global affiliates it spawned. It remains in syndication long after it ended and shows like Sex in the City and Desperate Housewives wouldn’t have been possible without the success of The Golden Girls and the topics discussed. The fan base of the show has expanded to more than just women over fifty but also purists of good comedic writing and gay men in particular, for whom Bea Arthur is an icon. One can see the clear correlation between Dorothy and a character such as Miranda (SITC) and Lynette (DH).
Thirty-eight years after introducing a smart, feminist type to television audiences, Bea Arthur leaves the stage knowing that her legacy has secured the continuity of such strong-willed female characters. Bea Arthur died of cancer-related illness and was eighty-six (86) years old.