Writer/director Steve Gordon came into the movie business rather late. Like John Hughes and Lawrence Kasdan, he started his career working in advertising. He eventually moved into television writing, and on the side wrote a little script indebted to the screwball comedies of the 1930s about a silly drunk. Much to his dismay, the studios weren’t interested: “Who wants to see a movie about a rich irresponsible drunk and a woman who shoplifts?” Well, it turns out they were wrong: when it was released in 1981, it grossed $95 million on a $7 million budget. Unfortunately, Gordon didn’t get to enjoy the success of the movie for long. Eighteen months after the movie’s release, he died at the age of 44.
Arthur is interesting in the way most directorial debuts are, but I wouldn’t dismiss it as a curiosity like Martin Scorsese’s Who’s That Knocking At My Door?. It’s a very solid, standalone film with great performances, hilarious lines and a timeless story. At the time this movie came out, comedies were mostly raunchy; Caddyshack came out the year before and Porky’s came out the same year as Arthur. In that way, it’s amazing that this relatively tame film did as well as it did. It’s too bad Gordon was a one hit wonder, even though that’s not his fault.
The plot to Arthur is quite simple. Arthur Bach (Dudley Moore) is a millionaire drunk playboy who falls in love with working class Linda Marolla (Liza Minnelli), but faces being cut off from his family if he doesn’t marry a bland rich girl, Susan Johnson (Jill Eikenberry). Gordon was nominated for the Oscar for Best Screenplay, but he probably didn’t get it because of the way the story is told. It seems like the movie wanted to be a hijinks ensues kind of movie, and when it acts like this, it’s great. However, the energy falls short when it comes to more plot based scenes in the second act; Gordon’s handling of plot is reminiscent of television sitcoms. Because of this, the end result is an odd mix of free form and restraint. It even takes on a slasher movie tone in one scene where Susan’s father Burt Johnson (Stephen Elliot) comes after Arthur with a knife. By the end, it’s just made up of restraint, so the climax isn’t as rousing as it should be.
How he did secure the nomination was for the dialogue; Gordon is a master of wit, but this may have been the reason for the movies’ restraint. Despite that, lines like these keep the humorous spirit alive.
Burt Johnson: I don’t drink because drinking affects your decision making.
Arthur: You may be right. I can’t decide.
Of course, he did need brilliant actors to pull off these lines of dialogue. He couldn’t have done any better in casting Moore as Arthur, who pulls off the most accurate and enjoyable drunk performance of all time (Don’t you just love that laugh?). If you are wondering why Moore plays a New Yorker with his English accent, he had tried in vain to imitate an American one, so Moore and Gordon settled on his English accent. Personally, I think it works.
Moore is matched perfectly with Sir John Gielgud, who plays Arthur’s sardonic butler Hobson (Gielgud won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor). If you don’t watch the movie, please at least watch this compilation of his lines. For now, I’ll give you a preview.
Arthur: I hate it here!
Hobson: Of course you hate it. People work here.
Arthur: How come nobody smiles here?
Hobson: They smile at lunchtime.
If it weren’t for the brilliant performances, this movie would have fallen apart. Unfortunately, the only weak spot is Liza Minnelli. Maybe it’s the writing, but her performance just seems very one note. She’s redeemed by Gielgud though; he makes Liza seem like a good actress in the scenes she plays off of him.
Although that above picture is hilarious, Gordon is not a master of images. He’s obviously a writer turned director, because most of the shots are very awkwardly staged and shot; there’s a very bad shot of Arthur and Linda having dinner together, and the frame is largely taken up by a big plant. Actors and their gestures are his “visual style”; his direction is very theatrical in that way. Let’s face it though; all he really needed to do was point the camera in either Moore or Gielgud’s direction.
With just this film, Gordon did nothing less than invent the modern comedy. At first look, that doesn’t seem to be the case; its sharp wit, fast paced dialogue and high class setting more resemble the screwball comedies of the 1930s. Look more closely, and the story of a hedonistic man child who must learn to grow up, sounds more reminiscent of the plots to Will Ferrell and Adam Sandler comedies. Although these latter comedies are funny, they suffer from dips into crudity that Arthur wisely avoids. While Arthur Bach is definitely obnoxious and terrible in the way that Billy Madison is, you can’t deny that he has charm and a way with words.
P.S. Oh yeah, and that Oscar winning song “Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do)” is truly awful.