And then there’s Bea
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I’m a little late on the “Bea Arthur tribute train,” but I still wanted to say a few words in honor of one of comedy’s most underrated actresses.
Bea wasn’t conventionally attractive by Hollywood standards, but with that permanent sarcastic edge in her voice and a withering stare that spoke volumes, you knew she didn’t give a crap about being judged on her looks, or at least, wasn’t about to let the world know it. She likely would have spent a lifetime playing second banana if not for that ball-busting sense of humor that demanded you pay attention to her. Refreshingly, as opposed to a lot of funny women, much of her humor didn’t seem to be based on self-deprecation, but rather responding to absurd people or situations.
I was a bit young to remember when Maude was in first run, but I was amazed to discover what controversial subjects it tackled, especially in a sitcom format. Alcoholism, divorce, even abortion, and this was back in the seventies. Somewhere along the way after that sitcoms got safe and dumb again, to the point where it’s now becoming nearly irrelevant as a television genre. What sort of “controversial” subjects have you seen touched upon there recently? On this week’s According to Jim, Jim forgets to take out the garbage again! Tonight, on a very special episode of Two and a Half Men, Charlie discovers he has two dates on the same night! So don’t just thank Norman Lear for pushing the envelope, thank Bea Arthur for believing that the world was ready to deal with some realism in their half-hour comedy. Apparently that was a more revolutionary act at the time than we realized.
For many years I was a closet fan of The Golden Girls, despite being around 40 years younger than the target audience, until thanks to the internet I happily discovered that I wasn’t alone. Being sarcastic to an occasionally off-putting degree, I felt a certain kinship and affection for Bea and the character of Dorothy Zbornak. Out of all four of the characters, she seemed to be the most realistic. Sophia was too nasty, Blanche was too slutty and Rose was simply too stupid to live, but with Dorothy the writers seemed to bring her character a little closer to something resembling Earth, or at least Hollywood’s idea of Earth. Sure, she wore some truly ludicrous outfits, but there was something believable about her. Bitter after a failed marriage, stuck with caring for a mother who loved her but had a funny, occasionally cruel way of showing it, unsatisfied with her job, a bit lonely (though ironically she was the only character on the show who ended up getting remarried), maybe scared about what remained of her life ahead, though she would never show it.
Dorothy was a surprisingly rich, multi-dimensional character for a sitcom. Women over sixty in sitcoms nowadays are either rehashes of Rue McClanahan’s oversexed Blanche (though usually played as slightly distasteful rather than in good fun) or dotty grandmothers who take turns with precocious children bouncing canned quips off the lead character. Hopefully we’ll see another character like her again, but we’ll never see another character like Bea Arthur again.