25th Anniversary Retrospective
1981, PG, 98 mins.
Dudley Moore: Arthur Bach / Sir John Gielgud: Hobson / Liza Minnelli: Linda
Written and directed by Steve Gordon
“I race cars, play tennis, and fondle women. But, I have weekends off, and I am my own boss.”
- Arthur Bach on his life’s pursuits
ARTHUR, even 25 years after its theatrical release, remains one of the great, undervalued comedic gems of the 1980’s. Truth be told, it was a critical and box office success. However, to younger and more contemporary filmgoers, the film languishes as some sort of distant memory. Maybe its reputation has been corrupted by endless gross out, teen sex comedies that substitute bodily fluids and bathroom humor for solid writing, spirited performances, wit and intelligence.
I know some people that have never seen ARTHUR, and that in itself is a shame. I have seen the film well over 50 times. I know it scene for scene, line for line, and beat for beat. It’s one of the few comedies that I know of that effectively marries so many disparaging elements – it’s a classic farce; a physical comedy; a romantic comedy of errors; a meditation on social class relationships; a poignant father/son story; and a subtle morality play on the human condition. As Arthur - in a drunken, yet logical rant - once states, “Not all of us who drink are poets. Some of us drink because we're not poets.”
In case you were not already aware, this 1981 comedy is about an alcoholic – nah – a spectacular alcoholic. He's played by Dudley Moore in what surely was his finest screen performance (more on that later). Arthur Bach is a wealthy man. Actually, he is beyond wealthy and worth nearly a billion dollars (when asked how rich he is, he dryly responds, “I wish I had a dime for every dime I had”). Arthur is in a perpetual, childlike state. Life is a continual game and the world is his toy closet. His daily existence alone would make modern gossip columnists blush. He cruises around in his limo every night, completely inebriated before suppertime, and prowls the streets for a good time. In the first scene of the film he picks up a prostitute for a one-night fling. Before that, of course, he needs to go to one of his favourite posh restaurants, most likely to make a scene in front of all of the patrons and any other family members that may be dining there.
Now, this all, of course, sounds like a tale of such a degenerate and selfish bum that the fact that it’s labeled as a comedy might seem dubious to some. Yet, the minor and delicate miracle of the film is in the character of Arthur himself, who is a smelly, clumsy, and self-absorbed drunk without a care in the world. Despite the fact that a character of this stature would normally invite our disdain and scorn, we immediately like Arthur. He’s not a mean-spirited drunk. He never hurts one physically, nor does he really ever put anyone in danger. Even when it comes to the art of conversation, he’s less of a social predator while he’s tipsy as he is a stand-up comic with a zinger for every exchange. When he stumbles across one of his relatives at the restaurant – hooker in hand – he finds less than delicate ways of responding to their queries. When asked where she comes from, he replies, “She comes from a small country…I mean small…the whole nation was just recently carpeted…Rhode Island could beat the crap out of it in a war…this is not a big place.”
His relatives grow disdainful of his slurred speech patterns and disregard for humility and shun him. “Grow up,” one of the pleads, “You’ll make a fine adult.” Arthur responds, as only he wants to: “That’s easy for you to say, you don’t have 50 pairs of short pants hanging in your closet!” That’s Arthur in a nutshell. Either he’s the most prepared social butterfly in the world, or a character that only a film could dream up, or a lonely man that has nothing better to do with his life than to have pre-conceived droll and sarcastic comebacks to even the most sincere of questions. No conversation is too serious or somber to have Arthur lash out with his intoxicated riffs. When his prostitute companion tells him that her mother died when she was six and that her father raped her when she was 12, Arthur still sees this as an avenue for a cheap laugh (“So, you had six relatively good years then?”).
Arthur is a persona that some could hate with a passion…. but he’s sure hard to hate. Why? Maybe because he’s not cruel or malevolent. If anything, Moore paints him as a progressively lonely figure. Yes, he drinks 24/7, but the film hints at the possible reasons for his behaviour. Perhaps it’s a method for Arthur to cheerfully mock his parental authority, which has an ungainly amount of control over his life. They want to force him into an arrange marriage of convenience (this type of theme in a romantic comedy is ageless and seems right out of Jane Austen). Also, perhaps his drinking masks his solitude and disillusionment. There is a sadness and poignancy to Arthur – he’s looking for true love and a woman that will unconditionally want to be with him and care for him for a lifetime. It’s sure hard to engage in such a quest when your parents have other plans for you. Oh, it's also hard when you're continually sloshed.
Arthur’s only true, trusted confidant in the world is not his family, but his surrogate family in Hobson, his butler. He’s played by Sir John Gielgud in what I think is the funniest, underplayed performance of the 80’s. He’s an effective counterpoint and foil to the bubbling and perpetually immature Arthur. He’s stoic, mannered, perfectly and eloquently spoken, and a staunch pragmatist. Oh, he does share one thing in common with Arthur - he has a sharp, mordant wit and charm that cuts to matters often with an understated charisma, eloquence, and a few four-letter expletives.
Gielgud knows exactly how to play a scene for a laugh, and he does so by not trying too hard (paradoxically, he's the funny straight man to Arthur, and garners chuckles with the least of effort). When Arthur awakens in the morning with his hooker at his side, Hobson deprecatingly states to him, “I've taken the liberty of anticipating your condition. I have brought you orange juice, coffee, and aspirins. Or do you need to throw up?” Even when Arthur tries to have a heart to heart with the seemingly congenial servant, Hobson’s daftness shines through. “You know what’s the worst thing about being me,” he asks, to which Hobson responds, “I would imagine your breath!” Hobson obviously has learned from the best.
It soon appears that the film will be an endless parade of seeing Arthur drink, going out on the town, seeing him drink, going out on the town…and so forth. However, destiny soon strikes the hapless billionaire. After a visit with his even wealthier father, who insists on Arthur marrying a women he despises (Arthur agrees to it, at the risk of losing his fortune), he goes on a day of binge shopping to pick his spirits up. He sees an unlikely vision - a beautiful young woman stealing a tie in the ritzy shop he and Hobson are in. An immediate attraction is formed, at least on Arthur’s side. Perhaps he’s instantly smitten with her genuine lack of respect for authority and the law. It seems like a match made in heaven.
The woman, Linda (the wonderful Liza Minnelli, long before she started creeping people out), is a dirt poor working class stiff that Arthur’s ostensibly rich and pompous parent’s would never go for (again, maybe another reason for his attraction). After she is pinched by a security guard, Arthur comes to the rescue. Hobson sees a bit of danger in Arthur’s pursuit with Linda, and he handles it with his belittling – yet hilarious – tongue. After the three have exchanged pleasantries, Hobson says, “I can see no reason for prolonging this conversation, unless you plan on knocking over a fruit-stand later this afternoon. Linda, good luck in prison.” Linda, also being a smart, good-natured lass with a sense of humor, takes an immediate liking to the uncensored words of the butler. Even after Hobson tells her, “Usually one would have to go to bowling alley to meet a woman of your stature,” she retorts, “I like him!” Hobson does not let it end there. After Arthur asks her for a date and she does not have a clue what to wear, Hobson tells her to “steal something casual.”
Linda likes the butler, but she grows to love Arthur even more. They have a date and it seems that both are falling for one another rather quickly. Another thing also seems to be happening – Arthur is sobering up. Whereas booze facilitated his woes, it is now Linda that is his muse in life. Linda also feels fulfilled, seeing as she has become a civilizing influence on his life. She loves Arthur, the man, not his money. Her father, played in yet another one of the film’s funny performances by Barney Martin, loves Arthur’s money. He hilariously tells Linda that she has his instant “permission to marry” Arthur after she tells him he’s a millionaire. Arthur, on the other hand, is growing as a person of responsibility with his growing love for Linda. He tells her, “I've never taken care of anyone. But if you got sick, I'd take care of you.” It appears that he has finally found someone else to focus his attention on other than himself.
Yet, Arthur is at the mercy of not only his parents, but of his future rich in-laws as well. If he marries Linda, he’ll be cut off and lose $750 million dollars. He does not marry Linda and move into the marriage of convenience, he’ll be miserable and have his millions. Then again, if he marries Linda, he’ll not only lose his millions, but probably his life as well. In one hilarious, but darkly twisted, scene in the film, Arthur meets his future father-in-law in Burt Johnson, played by Steven Elliot as man that will do anything to ensure his daughter marries Arthur and is happy. Arthur feels the only way to not be terrified of this man is to visit him absolutely plastered. His moments with Johnson are among the funniest in the film. They engage in the film’s most outright sidesplitting exchange:
I never drink. No one in my family ever drinks.
That's great! You probably never run out of ice your whole life!
I don't drink because drinking affects your decision-making.
You may be right. I can't decide.
Let’s just say that when Mr. Johnson reveals that he has killed a man when he was 11, Arthur soon sobers up to the idea of marrying Linda.
It is here where the film becomes a bit more than what even modern romantic comedies been. It soon becomes a soul-searching work where Arthur must make some crucial decisions in his life. All he wants his happiness, but that will cost him his fortune and lifestyle. The film also seriously explores the tumultuous relationship between the wealthy upper classes and the lower, blue-collar segment of society. Arthur’s rich parents only care about money, not love. Linda only cares about love and would gladly sacrifice all the money in the world for Arthur’s heart. Arthur soon sees himself in a moral dilemma. At one point when he sees no other alternative but to marry into his family’s wealth, he cries out to Hobson, “I feel unloved.” Hobson lashes out to him, “You feel unloved, Arthur, welcome to the world. Everyone is unloved.” Yet, Hobson is not too cynical a man to work as matchmaker and you soon get the sense that things will work out for Arthur.
ARTHUR is a film of nearly unparalleled comic timing and tenacity. This, of course, can be attributed to the film’s even-handed and democratic approach to where and how to handle the laughs. Every character is given their distinct moments to shine, and every role is spirited, vivacious, and comic to their core. Both Moore and Gielgud are as perfect as a comic pair as anything from the decade, but the film also benefits from the smart dialogue and witty banter of the supporting characters as well. Minnelli also has a light and acerbic comic touch as her female suitor to Arthur (during one moment where she is in Arthur’s parent’s mansion, she deadpans, “Nice place. I love a living room you can land a plane in.”).
Moore’s career was at a career high with ARTHUR. The Essex-born and Oxford trained actor made a name for himself in his home country when he was cast alongside Peter Cook in a comedy troupe in the 1960’s, long held to be the forerunner for future satirists like MONTY PYTHON and SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE. After the comedy troupe disbanded Cook and Moore made a series of hugely popular films in the 1960’s, like the original BEDAZZLED. They eventually went their separate ways and Moore looked to Hollywood. His first gig there was in Blake Edward’s 10, and then ARTHUR followed suit and the rest was history.
Both Moore and Gielgud received 1981 Academy Award nominations, and deservedly so. The Academy seems – even to this day - to have weak attention spans when it comes to honoring comic performances, and Moore and Gielgud were brilliant together in ARTHUR. Gielgud went on to win, as did “Arthur’s Theme” for Best Original Song. ARTHUR’S biggest unsung hero – writer-director Steve Gordon - was also nominated for Best Original Screenplay.
On the positive side, ARTHUR has stood the test of time as a landmark comedy classic. It was incredibly well received by critics in 1981 and was popular with audiences at the time. The negative side of the film was perhaps the downward spiral it created in its star. ARTHUR would be an incredible tough act to follow for Moore. Other film ventures for him in the 1980’s were a mixed comic bag, like the mediocre BEST DEFENSE to the atrocious SANTA CLAUS: THE MOVIE to the frequently funny CRAZY PEOPLE. He made the inevitable sequel to ARTHUR in ARTHUR 2: ON THE ROCKS in 1988, but the spark and magic seemed to be vacant. Steve Gordon was the most tragic figure in the wake of ARTHUR’s success. He went from TV writer and director in the late 70’s to an Oscar nominated screenwriter virtually overnight. He unfortunately died shortly after ARTHUR’s premiere. Had he lived his career in the genre of film comedy, Gordon could have reached potential heights – if ARTHUR was any indication - that Woody Allen achieved.
Aside from the early films of Mel Brooks and the classic spoofs by the Zucker Brothers and Jim Abrahams, no other film has made me laugh as much as ARTHUR. Yet, the real treasure in the film is not just in its consistent laugh quotient, but also in its poignancy, sentimentality, and intelligence. A modern comedy would have shown Arthur as a crude and disgusting figure engaging in scene after scene of him excreting bodily fluids until we are sick of watching it. ARTHUR proved that you could have a remarkable chuckle fest and be endearing and sweet all at the same time. Arthur is a damn dirty drunk, but he is affable and has a sweetness and humanity to him. When it comes right down to it, his penchant for liquor only masks his pain and yearning for companionship. ARTHUR is a kind reminder to us of how screen comedies can be a wonderfully balanced mixture of pathos, love, and pratfalls. It truly has remained one of the best executed and realized of all the screen comedies. My next 50 viewings will – undoubtedly – be just as enjoyable.