Monday, July 20, 2009

Beatrice Arthur

Beatrice Arthur has the peculiar distinction of having provided a reason to watch the 1974 movie musical Mame, based on the Broadway show and starring Lucille Ball (and when I say "watch", I of course mean, "keep your finger pressed hard on that fast-forward button at all but the appropriate times). The movie, which was intended as a crowning high point to Ball's career, proved to be a source of embarrassment to the star, who at 62 couldn't (or at least didn't) dance and who gargled her songs in a voice that would have done Ernest Borgnine proud, but it did give Arthur a chance to reprise her Tony-Award-winning performance as Mame's formidable sidekick, Vera Charles, for the camera. (The movie was directed by Gene Saks, who was married to Arthur from 1950 to 1978.) Arthur's work in the movie inspired New Yorker critic Pauline Kael to one of those vivid prose poems of hers that made performing in light entertainment sound like an act of battlefield heroism that might get the subject's face included in the redesign of the Congressional Medal of Honor. Kael wrote that Arthur's Vera was "monstrously marvelous--like a coquettish tank. When she sings, the low growls that come out of her cathedral chest make Ethel Merman sound like a tinkling virgin. Beatrice Arthur can deliver a single-syllable word with enough resonance to stampede cattle three thousand miles away."

By the time she took home that Tony, Arthur had been a presence in New York theater and early television for some twenty years. Born Bernice Frankel--she later said that “I changed the Bernice almost as soon as I heard it."--her first husband was the screenwriter Robert Alan Aurthur, from whom she took an improved spelling of his last name. Before her Broadway successes in Mame and in the original production of Fiddler on the Roof, in which she played Yente the matchmaker, she had built up a strong cult following with her appearances in nightclubs and off Broadway, most notably with her performance as Lucy Brown in the 1954 production of The Threepenny Opera. She appeared often on Studio One and Kraft Television Theater, was a regular on Caesar's Hour (the variety show that Sid Caesar starred in after Your Show of Shows), and made her movie debut in 1970 in Lovers and Other Strangers. But of course, she made her biggest splash as the star of the series Maude, which premiered in 1972 and ran until 1978. A liberal-loudmouth spin-off of All in the Family, the show was powered by the old pros in the cast (which also included Bill Macy and Rue McClanahan) and quickly established a reputation as a place where touchy issues such as abortion and menopause went to get aired. In 1985, Arthur and McClanahan teamed with Betty White for another long-running sitcom, The Golden Girls. (It was created by Susan Harris, who wrote "Maude's Dilemma", the famous first-season two-parter in which the 47-year-old Maude had that abortion.) She won Emmys for both Maude and Golden Girls.

In between her two TV hits, Arthur starred in the short-lived Amanda's, a misconceived 1983 Americanization of Fawlty Towers in which Arthur was badly miscast in the role created by John Cleese to showcase his own gift for comic apoplexy. (A master of the slow burn, Arthur could raise her voice, but she was too regally self-contained to do conniption fits.) She also appeared in Mel Brooks's History of the World--Part One (1981) and the 2000 Enemies of Laughter, which was directed by John Travolta, as well as contributing memorable guest spots to Malcolm in the Middle, Futurams, and Curb Your Enthusiasm. Between 2000 and 2006, she toured the country, as well as London, Australia, and Canada, in her one-woman show, which earned her a Tony nomination when she did a version of it on Broadway in 2002. (She lost to Elaine Stritch for her one-woman show.) In 2005, she turned up on basic cable at Comedy Central's roast of Pamela Anderson, where she was introduced by emcee Jimmy Kimmel as "a national treasure" who "should be treated as such," a gesture that inspired me to personally remove his name from my fatwa list. At the roast, she gave a reading from selections of Anderson's novel Star: A Novel. Some would probably judge the resulting clip below to be workplace-inappropriate, but my feeling is always that the best way to find out such things is to jack the volume up as loud as it'll go and let 'er rip.

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