Monday, April 27, 2009

Bea Arthur: Why Truth is Funny

Bea Arthur died this past weekend, and she has been eulogized quite a bit, deservedly so. With appreciations, quotes and clips, everyone has been reminding us how very funny Bea Arthur was. And she was. But that gift was only half of what made her so special.

Some of the obituaries I have seen refer to Arthur as a comedian. There's no shame in being a comedian, but she wasn't one. She was an actress. Yes, she occasionally made personal appearances, and her sharp delivery worked in that setting, too, but as an actress, she was funny because she was real. When I laughed at Maude, it was because Arthur was showing the full dimensions of a human being and, knowing that human being made her funny. Bea Arthur's comedy was the comedy of recognition. She got thousands of laughs in her career, but none were laughs for their own sake. She played the parts so that we understood the women on screen in all their depths. If the characters were funny people, so be it.

But being an actress playing comedy rather than a comedian still doesn't define her unique quality. Many actresses succeed at comedy by limning real portraits of funny people. A smaller number can even do what Bea Arthur was so good at, which was going from side-splitting comedy to heart-rending pathos in the blink of an eye. But no one else could do both at exactly the same time. Arthur could show the deepest, saddest part of her characters, and make us laugh at the very same time. Suffering from bipolarity on Maude, she showed us the ravaging highs and lows of that condition in all its frightfulness, but she did it with humor. When Dorothy on The Golden Girls fell in and out of love with her ex-husband, Arthur made us see the pain and the humor of the situation, not close together, not in the same show, but at the same moment. A good actress can make an audience feel something. A great actress can make an audience feel different things. And Bea Arthur could make an audience feel different things at the same instant.

She was a wonderful actress, but also a star. You can be both. She was a star because she brought a certain personality to her work. Maude and Dorothy, contrary to the obvious external similarities, were very dissimilar characters, but they both fell within the realm of Arthur's star persona. Most fans already know the story of how Betty White and Rue McClanahan switched parts at the last minute. They were wonderful in the parts they got, and they'd have been wonderful the other way around. White and McClanahan are character actresses, and they can disappear into their characterizations. Bea Arthur could not have successfully switched parts with either of them; she was not a character actress. She had a star personality and the characters she created reflected that personality, although she could create complex, and separate, characters along that spectrum. One of her great contributions to The Golden Girls was providing that personality. They needed a star to center the show, and they had the foresight and fortune to get Bea Arthur, a star and an actress.

In an interview with The Archive of American Television, Ms. Arthur said she would like to be remembered as an artist. You got your wish, Bea.

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