Arthur (1981)

Dudley Moore is Arthur Bach in "Arthur." Also shown: Arthur's faithful sidekick, the martini.

Written and directed by Steve Gordon. Produced by Robert Greenhut. Photographed by Fred Schuler. Music by Burt Bacharach. Edited by Susan E. Morse. Production designed by Stephen Hendrickson. Starring Dudley Moore, Liza Minnelli, John Gielgud, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Jill Eikenberry, Stephen Elliott, Ted Ross, Barney Martin.

Steve Gordon’s Arthur is such a sweet little comedy, so effortless and nice and funny and true, that it upsets me to acknowledge the reason I’m reviewing it this week: because Warner Brothers has chosen, bafflingly, to remake it. I do not think this was through some pressing need to update the plot or say new things about the divide between wealth and happiness. I suppose, instead, it is simply an attempt to build a star vehicle around actor Russell Brand, and that is a vehicle I do not wish to buy. I have nothing against Brand as a valuable comic performer in small doses – he stole scenes in 2008’s Forgetting Sarah Marshall and has had occasional moments in his acting career where he transcends bad-boy antics and achieves a sort of twisted wisdom that is actually pretty funny. But a challenging actor he is not, and a leading man he is not, and to suggest that Brand is a worthy successor to the sublime original performance by Dudley Moore is not a suggestion I can take seriously.

And honestly, what is the point of remarking Arthur? To challenge our evolved notion of what it is to be a bored rich kid, which is now informed by endless repeats of Keeping Up With the Kardashians? Does the poor economy inspire us to laugh harder at such foolish excess? Since we’re paying to laugh at the money problems of celebrities who have, in real life, more money than God, doesn’t that mean the joke’s on us? Or do we now yearn more than ever for the archetypal story of a spoiled brat who learns that money isn’t everything?

That’s probably the more scholarly answer, but if so, why cast Brand? He’s an actor whose every attempt, even that of sincerity, feels cunningly calculated. He cannot anchor a story that is meant to be sweet, because sweetness is out of his range. He lacks the key ingredient that Dudley Moore brought to the title role of Arthur: innocence. Yes, Arthur Bach is a silly twit who does stupid things, especially when drunk, but beneath it all Moore projects a warmth and desire to be loved that makes us, dang it, like him.

Consider the opening scene, where Arthur, riding in his limo in pre-Giulliani New York, picks up a streetwalker and brings her to a posh hotel restaurant, where his family watches in horror and the press salivate at the chance (one of many, we gather) to photograph the heir of a large fortune make an ass of himself. The dinner proceeds. Arthur, like many drunks, loses track of where the night began, and has to be reminded that she is a hooker, to which he responds: “You are? I just thought I was doing great with you!” Mean? On the page, perhaps. Not in Moore’s delivery, however, in which he conveys (better than most alcoholics do) a strongly-held belief that his one-liners are funny and harmless. He is so lonely, and she so professional, they continue to make small talk: she says her mother died at six, and her father raped her at twelve. He: “So you had six relatively good years, then.” Then, without a drop of irony: “My father screwed me, too.”

Again…on the page? Less funny. Coming through Dudley Moore’s mouth? Very funny, not least because he taps into the subtext of longing buried beneath. Moore sloshes his words and slouches like the prototypical drunk, but we also see the pain he’s withdrawing from, the illusion of joy that he’s chasing, and this is the key to what makes Arthur earn or sympathy, and later our trust. Arthur Bach is insensitive, but he’s also good-hearted, even when smashed. And he is never cruel, just inappropriately honest. Haven’t we all felt like that? We forgive his sins.

Arthur is bored. Bored of his millions, bored with his lavish penthouse and meaningless relationships, bored with his endless bubble baths. The only thing he isn’t bored of is booze, which is the very thing that makes him a bore. Alas. His only friend—if he can be called that—is his faithful manservant, Hobson (John Gielgud), who has a caustic remark for any occasion, and there are a lot of occasions in Arthur’s life. Even his own prospects Arthur finds boring, since his family is willing to cut him off if he doesn’t marry the woman of their choosing. Yes, cut him off. “From the family?” he asks. No. He thinks of his lavish lifestyle. “Not the…not the mmmm—“ He stops. The thought is too unthinkable.

The bride-to-be, Susan Johnson (Jill Eikenberry) is, to be sure, a very nice woman with no personality flaws, by virtue of the fact that she has no personality. But her very existence is an oppressive strain on Arthur, a reminder that his imprisonment is soon to be come a life sentence. Yet without his millions, Arthur would be utterly ill-equipped to deal with the real world. He can choose to be miserable and rich or, alternately, miserable and poor.

But then something really wonderful happens. One day, he’s shopping at Bergdorf’s, and he spots a woman sneakily shoplifting a tie. The store security guard spies this, too, and follows the woman onto the street, and Arthur follows both of them. When confronted, the woman, Linda (Liza Minnelli) does a commendable job of trying to take control of the situation, and so when Arthur slides in to offer some assistance, it is less an act of pity and more the final piece of her persuasive (and fictional) alibi. The guard lets her go, Arthur walks Linda to the bus stop, Hobson has some withering put-downs, they agree to meet again, and at some point, they fall in love.

What makes this work so well is that we’re never quite sure when the exact moment is that Arthur falls in love with Linda, or when Linda starts to love him back. They just do, even though no scene in the movie is written or performed to be that scene where they do. We’ve already gotten to know Arthur, and now we get to know Linda, who is not a symbol or prize or amorphous presence of womanhood, but a real person with real problems. We sympathize with her relish as she times her exit from a limo in order to “casually” bump into her neighbor. We understand the relationship she has with her blue-collar father (Barney Martin), who is allowed his own reactions to this person who enters his daughter’s life, and gets what is maybe the funniest moment in the entire film. And we appreciate the realistic quality she brings to a scene where Arthur breaks off their relationship, out of fear of hurting her. There’s a specificity to her that makes us root for their romance: she will not fix Arthur’s problems, but she will make him happy, and we wish him to be.

The film, arguably, has no villains. The father is stern, but is mainly just fed up with Arthur being Arthur. Arthur’s aunt Martha (Geraldine Fitzgerald) is not nasty, just pragmatic. Susan is not the right woman for the petulant zillionaire, but she’s pleasant enough. Susan’s father (Stephen Elliott) is indeed a pugilistic jerk, but it is all in the name of protecting his daughter. Even the paparazzi that hound Arthur’s activities are treated as a fact of life, nothing to get upset about. Yet despite the lack of easy antagonists, there are stakes, beautifully articulated in the moment where Arthur has finally had enough of Hobson’s catty remarks, yells at him, and storms out. Then he returns to apologize, but the old man is secretly impressed. Arthur is growing up.

The heart of the film is shared between the leads, but the one who has the most claim to it is perhaps Gielgud as Hobson, who has an arc that is as touching as it is restrained, which is very (he won an Oscar for the role). It is he who has the most quiet affection for Arthur, and if the young man has turned out warped, perhaps that is a failure of upbringing: when an underling gripes that Arthur is an ungrateful son, note the pride on Gielgud’s lips during his reply: “I really wouldn’t know, sir. I’m just a servant. On the other hand, go screw yourself.” And although his berating of Arthur’s childishness on a racetrack is unexpectantly touching, there’s a sweeter moment that comes when he steps inside Linda’s hovel and makes a case to her for why she should come to Arthur’s engagement party. Even his exit from the film is handled tastefully, when similar scenes in other movies are seized as an excuse to be maudlin.

The movie is very funny, and the humor is heightened with how well it is made. The cinematography is appropriately stolid—to push the wacky button would be all wrong. The actors are all playing characters hewed into specific shapes, not lazy stereotypes. Arthur may be a hopeless drunk and immature playboy, but he betrays hidden depths late in the film, as if his pursuit of love awakens long-dormant qualities. This is a testament to how skillfully Dudley Moore slides between the different faces of Arthur while making them all work. He stumbles like Andy Capp in early scenes and thinks of nothing of spending his money on sex, but he eventually flirts with pseudo-sophistication, and then the real thing, and in-between has a priceless moment where he tries to reassemble a broken knickknack from Linda’s mantle. It’s charming. Dudley Moore may not have been the greatest actor of his generation, but he was a dependable one that found the perfect fit for him in the role of Arthur Bach. He shares that level of perfection with filmmaker Steve Gordon, who, sadly, directed only one film–this one (he died of a heart attack in 1982).

He made something that lasts. The only thing about Arthur that has dated is the music; both Burt Bacharach’s musical score and Christopher Cross’ title song are so inappropriate they don’t even feel right for the time the film was made. The mid-seventies, maybe, but 1981? I know Bacharach was a gifted composer (and is still alive, God bless him), but his music is so flighty it barely seems to be paying attention to what’s happening on screen. As for Christopher Cross, he is the kind of artist who writes lyrics that crawl inside your head and make you resent the entire journey it took to do so. And if this sounds like someone stretching to find something to criticize for what is otherwise a delicious little slice of comedy, you’re right. What else shall I do? Recite all the jokes I liked? How fair would that be?

Arthur is a slight film, but it perfectly accomplishes what it sets out to do, and that is the nicest thing an artist can achieve. Why remake it? Because it did such a good job, I guess. I know that Hollywood is an industry that thrives on sure things, and remakes of known quality properties bear that out. But sometimes I wonder if it would be more interesting and healthier if we got remakes of films that didn’t quite get it right the first time. Let’s remake failures, not successes. That’s what we need: some sort of remake program that can elevate poor material. Leave the rich alone.


NEXT TIME PERIOD: 1956 – The Ten Commandments



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