I've been wary of the remake of the classic comedy Arthur ever since it's been announced. And now that I've read the comments of the artists involved in a New York Times feature, I'm even more worried. They don't seem to have a clue as to what Arthur was about.
SPOILER: If you've never seen the 1981 gem about a drunken playboy who finds true love, by all means rent it now. It won an Oscar for the great John Gielgud, features Liza Minnelli in her best performance outside of Cabaret and boasts one of the smartest screenplays around. The following comments detail the plot at length and will spoil the film if you aren't familiar with it already.
Stars Russell Brand and Helen Mirren and director Jason Winer (of Modern Family success) -- not to mention the article's author -- all seem to think that the original needs help if it's to be relevant, that Dudley Moore's character is a drunk at the beginning and a drunk at the end, that Arthur doesn't grow or change and that above all it celebrates wealth in a wallowing sort of Reagan-era manner. All of this is patently wrong.
At the beginning of the film, Arthur is a spoiled, sad, lonely drunk who is too cowardly to stand up to his father. By the end, he is happy, in love, an adult, sober (at least symbolically) and brave enough to toss aside every penny of his wealth in order to be with the woman he loves. A child could detail the changes in Arthur, even if Hobson didn't spell it out for us in a crucial scene. How could these artists miss that?
Helen Mirren -- a smart, wonderfully talented actor -- is playing Hobson, who in a clever and wise twist has been changed from a butler to a nanny. That's the sort of change any remake should follow, since there's no point in remaking a film without rethinking it. And a nanny is exactly what this pivotal character is to Arthur.
But Mirren had this to say to the New York Times: "I just didn't think a film about a drunken small guy was remotely funny. The reality about alcoholics is that they're boring and tedious, and I'd spent enough nights in pubs with drunken boys to know it was not something I'd ever want to be caught up in. And I particularly objected to the way women were depicted -- which was something I felt about most movies I saw back then -- as kind of slave-enablers."
The NYT article continues: "Mr. Winer shared some of Ms. Mirren's concerns. 'When I rewatched it, it was as delightful as I'd remembered, but the character never grows. At the end Arthur is just as drunk as he was at the beginning, and Liza Minnelli's character essentially steps into the role of caretaker.'"
Well Mirren's absolutely right in one respect. But the key word there is "reality." In real-life most drunks are indeed tiresome and virtually none are remotely as funny as Moore in the movie. But this isn't real life we're talking about. And movies have a long history of funny drunken scenes, from Katharine Hepburn and Jimmy Stewart in The Philadelphia Story to Lee Marvin in Cat Ballou and about a million other examples. (And what's with the "small guy" crack?) And has she never heard of W.C. Fields? Here's Marvin stumbling in on a funeral.
So forget "reality" when it comes to romantic comedies about billionaires who marry waitresses. But look closer to see how the movie views Arthur's drunkenness.
When is Arthur drunk? He's drunk at the beginning of the film and he's drunk when he's ashamed of himself -- notably he's drunk when he gets engaged to a woman he doesn't love, he's drunk when he tries to apologize to the waitress he's abandoning and asks her to be his mistress and he's drunk on the day of his arranged marriage. Arthur may be hilariously funny, but his drunkenness is always seen as an outward sign of his sadness. For me, the most heartbreaking moment in the film is when Arthur drunkenly tells his fiance not to romanticize his alcoholism. "Not everyone who drinks is a poet," says Arthur. "Some of us drink because we're not poets."
When is Arthur sober? He's ALWAYS sober around Hobson, the one person at the beginning of the film that he loves and respects. Arthur is sober when he first meets the love of his life, the shop-lifting Linda Marolla. Arthur is sober when they go on dates together, to dinner and an arcade. Arthur is sober when he stands up to Hobson and defends Linda. Arthur is sober at his public engagement party to the bland Susan where he and Linda bond even more, despite believing their romance is over. And most importantly, Arthur is sober when Hobson falls ill and Arthur steps into manhood to take care of him. Arthur is sober when it counts.
Does the movie celebrate conspicuous consumption? Hardly. Arthur is a prince, in many ways, and Linda is the commoner he whisks away to his castle. Yes, there are classic Hollywood films where the madcap heiress or wealthy playboy gives up their money. But plenty more of them -- indeed most of them -- show the commoner coming into that magical world of privilege...but only because they earn it by showing the money doesn't matter to them. Often, they fall for a prince or millionaire who is in disguise as just an average Joe.
When Linda first describes Arthur to her dad, she doesn't even think to mention that he's rich beyond belief. A running joke is that her unemployed dad cares a lot more about the money than she does. When Arthur tells Linda that he's engaged to another woman, the scene ends with Arthur sitting alone and sad in his home. Then we cut to Linda's home...where she is comforting her weeping father. It's a clever way of acknowledging the audience's desire for a life of ease and luxury without spoiling the romance.
Arthur -- out of guilt and a sincere desire to help -- later offers Linda a huge check. She throws it back in his face. His drunkenness in this scene is a source of embarrassment and Linda even chides him for it. Is Linda a "slave-enabler," as Mirren puts it? I'd be hard-pressed to say how. Linda is a strong independent woman who can take care of herself (and her father!), thank you very much.
Only two other women have roles of any note in the movie. Arthur's fiance is a bland, tiresome daddy's girl -- and the film explicitly rejects her as a suitable woman for Arthur specifically because she is so weak. And then there's Arthur's grandmother, a strong-willed eccentric woman every bit as hard-nosed a figure as the fiance's homicidal father, Burt Johnson. She's no one's pushover.
At the finale, far from wanting both money and love, Arthur specifically rejects his inheritance to break off the wedding and marry Linda. She accepts him happily, believing they'll both be just regular working people. In the final moments, when Arthur is on the steps of St. Patrick's Cathedral, he is sober, at least symbolically. (The earlier scene of him being drunk at the church and finally passing out might have been an hour or so ago.) Arthur rejects the money again and says goodbye to his grandmother and his chauffeur. At the last moment, the grandmother insists he take the money back, Arthur goes over to talk to her and we're genuinely uncertain of what is happening. Yes, he takes the money. He's not an idiot, as Arthur says. But he and Linda go off to have a tuna fish sandwich rather than go sailing on the grandmother's yacht.
In that final moment of true love and genuine maturity for Arthur, the idea that he's going to remain a hopeless drunk and get tozzled four or five nights a week is simply ludicrous. He doesn't need to get drunk anymore. He's happy. How anyone can fail to see that is beyond me.
The original movie was a fairy tale itself. It was the first film from writer-director Steve Gordon, after years of decent work in TV. The movie was a left-field hit and Oscar winner, all of which Gordon was able to enjoy to the fullest before dying suddenly of a heart attack the following year. I love the movie so much I never went to see the sequel Arthur 2: Arthur On The Rocks, a 1988 film the late Gordon had nothing to do with. Why spoil a wonderful movie with something like that? Plenty of movie characters can be reborn from Robin Hood to Superman to Sherlock Holmes. But some are perfect just the way they are.
I hope the artists behind the remake of Arthur somehow capture the sweet, endearing essence of the original, even though they seem blind to its charms and the true message of the movie. They're too talented (especially Mirren) not to give it a go. And clearly they must have liked it a little, or why remake it? But me, I'm just glad it's coming out because I feel certain it means the original classic will finally be released on DVD in a letterboxed format. Until then, you can (very rarely) find the letterboxed format on TCM or download the movie from iTunes. If you do, you'll enjoy one of the cleverest scripts in Hollywood history. And the drinks are on me.
Thanks for reading. Michael Giltz is the cohost of Showbiz Sandbox, a weekly pop culture podcast that reveals the industry take on entertainment news of the day and features top journalists and opinion makers as guests. It's available free on iTunes. Visit Michael Giltz at his website and his daily blog. Download his podcast of celebrity interviews and his radio show, also called Popsurfing and also available for free on iTunes. Link to him on Netflix and gain access to thousands of ratings and reviews.