The Fem Spot

Bea Arthur bows out

Posted in Film and Television by femspotter on May 8, 2009
May 8, 2009
Bea Arthur...very tall, very funny

Bea Arthur...very tall, very funny

Maude Findlay was 47 years old and pregnant. What to do? Bring an unwanted baby into the home of two “over the hill” misfits in an unstable marriage? Disrupt her life – not to mention risk it – for almost a year and then give the baby away to mythically perfect adoptive parents? Abort the pregnancy?

This must have been a tough decision for Maude. But it was really a choice for Bea Arthur who, in playing Maude on Maude in 1972 – before the monumental Roe v. Wade decision of 1973, two months later – became the first actress to portray a lead character undergoing an abortion in television history.

However did Arthur reconcile her decision to play the liberal-minded, outspoken housewife who befriends homosexuals, supports the civil rights movement and advocates legal abortion? And Maude was the f-word too: f- f- f- feminist! Was that even allowed in 1972? Ms. Magazine was less than a year old and the National Organization for Women (NOW) was founded a mere five years before that. And then came Maude: mouthing off to her husband, harnassing her own reproductive rights, and taking a part-time job despite her hubby’s antiquated protests.

Last week, I read that Arthur (5/13/1922 – 4/25/2009) had died. I cried. I feel a tremendous amount of gratitude for all women who – however subtly – have chiseled away at the myths, the stereotypes and the expectations that make it difficult for other-than-standard beauties to thrive in this superficial world of ours. Standing 5 feet, 9 inches tall on bare feet and bellowing sarcasm with a distinctively low, husky voice, Arthur broke the mold. How? Perhaps, by simply not being afraid of it: “I can’t stay home waiting for something different,” she said once. “I think it’s a total waste of energy worrying about typecasting.”

After a semi-successful career in theatre, the actress broke into television with a memorable performance on All in the Family, from which Maude spun off. It was a picaresque show, really, because every good thing Maude wanted to do with the best of intentions always went wrong. But she was likable enough for most with her big heart and contrarily acerbic wit.

And later, in 1985, there came The Golden Girls: a show about four middle-aged to senior women living it up together in sunny Miami, Florida. As Dorothy Zbornak, Arthur wasn’t nearly as socially clumsy as Maude had been; but Zbornak was the butt of everybody’s jokes about being unattractive and sexless over the age of 50. The show won the Emmy for “Best Comedy Series” twice, in 1986 and 1987, and garnered each of the four women Emmy’s for their individual performances.

Arthur became famous for her deadpan sarcasm with lines like: You’ll have to excuse my mother. She suffered a slight stroke a few years ago which rendered her totally annoying…and…Well, I guess after a hard night of pillaging and raping, a Viking would want a little something to go with his cocoa.

I loved The Golden Girls. It gave me something to look forward to – namely fun and friendship…and cheesecake – in those years after my youth has faded and – as Hollywood has always envisioned it for me – my life is over. Here were four women who looked after themselves and each other. Men were accessories, often present for the sake of “war between the sexes” comic spectacle. Men were always disposable; until, as television luck would have it, Dorothy married Blanche’s (Rue McClanahan) uncle Lucas, played by Leslie Nielsen. The show fell apart when Dorothy left and was canceled the following season.

Dorothy was difficult to love for some, as Maude had been before her. I found her sarcasm funny, but when I wrote to my mother about Arthur’s death she couldn’t commiserate: “I found it difficult to watch her,” my mother wrote. “Not because of the issues but because she was so loud (coarse, rude) about them. It is possible that loud is necessary to get attention for these issues about which I was already on board. Too close for comfort, maybe.”

What’s of particular interest to me is that, perhaps like many, I had always assumed that the coarseness of Arthur’s characters – the stuff of my mother’s discomfort – went part and parcel with her “real” self. But apparently, the real Bea Arthur wasn’t loud or rude in private life. And remarkably – though they reportedly consumed more than 100 of them during the taping of The Golden Girls over seven seasons – Arthur hated cheesecake! So she opened her mouth AND she stuffed her face for show business – and feminism!

In an Entertainment Weekly tribute, McClanahan remembered Arthur’s softer side:

As a friend she was giving and loving to me. She was a very close, quiet, rather timid person, very gentle. I saw someone say something once that they didn’t mean to be a cutting remark, but it hit her wrong, and she immediately burst into tears. That was not seen very often, but those emotions were right under the surface…That height…and that deep voice, and that manner she was able to summon up, made people think she would be difficult. But she wasn’t.

Another costar Betty White called Arthur “a big part of my life,” while writer-producer Mitchell Hurwitz added, “I really loved her…Her warmth wasn’t superficial – it was genuine and bespoke true compassion. And it was this same inner sweetness that made her comedy so real and touching, and made her such an inspiration,” in another EW article.

Just as she was sweeter than her television incarnations, Arthur was the unlikely “women’s libber” too. She was married to stage director Gene Saks for 28 years (1950-1978) and the couple adopted two sons. Arthur maintained during her Maude era that “I’ve never felt that being a wife and mother isn’t enough,” according to this source.

Later on after their divorce, Arthur began to question the meaning of female identity as juxtaposed with marriage: “I don’t think I ever truly believed in marriage anyway,” she told an interviewer in 1985. “I guess marriage means that you’re a woman and not a…person.”

Recalled McClanahan:

I think, in both of those shows, we really did change the perception of a woman’s role. I don’t think anybody thought that it was okay to be a feminist back when she was doing Maude. And I’m sure that [show] released a lot of inhibitions. I know The Golden Girls certainly did because I’ve got fan mail saying “Thank you for allowing me to act and dress like I feel.” Because in those days, when you were over 50, you were supposed to be wearing certain types of clothes and behaving a certain way. And women were writing saying “Thank you, thank you, thank you for the freedom, for the release, for the permission.” And I’m sure Bea got that same kind of fan mail, too.

What is okay behavior for a married woman vs. a single gal? How much money am I supposed to make? Who am I really? These are ongoing discussions I hold with myself – not to mention in this forum. What I appreciate most about Bea Arthur is that she brought these issues to life as a fearless performer of women on the fringe of social acceptance: the sassy yet earnest housewife of an archaic thinker and the sarcastic yet intelligent over-50 divorcee who’s continually disappointed in life. She made these women likable to me – thus, I’m not afraid to turn out unloved by others. I can love me.

Bea Arthur on Broadway - Just Between Friends

Bea Arthur on Broadway - Just Between Friends

The real Bea Arthur always wanted to sing on the stage, despite the mediocrity of her singing voice. Hers was a variety show with music and comedy, the kind only she could deliver. “I wanted to see if I had the guts to just come and be myself,” she told the audience at one performance of her one woman Broadway show Just Between Friends in December, 2001.

She was 79 years old and had finally reached the pinnacle of her career. I’m 29 and nowhere near that spot. Arthur would probably tell me that there’s no rush.

I was glad to read that today’s funny women of television know how much they’ve benefitted from Arthur playing Maude with integrity. Tina Fey told Entertainment Weekly in an interview, “You could argue that every strong female comedy character, from Murphy Brown to Roseanne to Amy Poehler rapping at nine months pregnant on (Saturday Night Live), is in some way indebted to Maude and to Bea Arthur. Ms. Arthur sandwiched both sides of Three’s Company – Maude was before, and Golden Girls was after – and made TV a little safer for women.”

But, Tina, with topics like abortion to play out, she made the world safer for real women too!

5 Responses

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  1. Mom said, on May 8, 2009 at 1:23 pm

    Beautifully written, comprehensive and even handed. I am not the least bit bothered by your having quoted me. Each of us reacted in our own way to Bea Arhtur and the things she tried to do. I am happy she had a positive impact on so many people and the times. I would like for points to be made sometime without so much excess in one way or another to get them across or noticed. But, real world, the loudest squeak gets the grease!

  2. femspotter said, on May 8, 2009 at 1:26 pm

    Something for everyone, yes? I enjoyed finding out that she was not really like her characters in “real life.” Perhaps it was her size that dictated her career?

  3. Mom said, on May 8, 2009 at 1:35 pm

    Yes. Perhaps because she was not cookie-cutter perfect she had the advantage of being noticed and even more so when she did something outrageous!
    Drama for effect.
    For sure, those who march in line and don’t stand out, don’t seem to make much of a difference.

  4. faemom said, on May 13, 2009 at 12:34 am

    I remember enjoying Golden Girls when I was a girl. It seems odd to me now that I actually liked watching a show that wasn’t really relatable to young watchers. But Bea was my favorite. I wanted to be like her. And I’m a little surprised that she was not really like her characters. It always seemed so natural to her. I guess that makes her an even more amazing actress.

  5. femspotter said, on October 30, 2009 at 7:51 am

    Bea Arthur lives on:

    The actress left $300,000 to the Ali Forney Center in New York City, which helps homeless LGBT teens. Go Bea!

    If only everyone of your – and my – generation could be this open-minded and loving!

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