Coming into Steve Gordon’s one and only directorial effort Arthur (1981), I knew only a few details about the film: first, that Arthur was the story of a wealthy alcoholic looking for love; second, that the title role pretty much defined star Dudley Moore for the rest of his career; and third, that the featured an infuriatingly catchy theme song from Christopher Cross. What I wasn’t expecting was a film that, while often funny, featured such a strong undercurrent of sadness, which Arthur very much does.
And God bless it for featuring such sadness, because Arthur ultimately gains an immense power that it otherwise would lack. Arthur is the story of Arthur Bach, an incredibly wealthy New York alcoholic who spends his time wandering the city with his butler Hobson (John Gielgud, who won an Oscar for his work here), looking for some form of companionship. With his childlike, alcohol fuelled antics embarrassing the family, Arthur is threatened with being cut off from the family fortune unless he agrees to marry Susan, the daughter of another elite family. Of course, it is at this time Arthur meets Linda (Liza Minnelli), a working class woman who captures Arthur’s heart.
While the plot is standard material, Arthur is set apart from similar films which try and carryout a fairytale storyline in a modern setting by embracing the harsher realities of the material, rather than attempting to ignore or mute them. Arthur’s themes include class conflict, escapism, poverty, and absentee parents, and while the central characters may be caught up in their dreams and fantasies, the film never succumbs to the temptation to provide easy, fantasy answers or false resolutions to the questions it proposes. Arthur is a deconstruction of storybook fairytales, particularly those of the Disney mould, as it showcases the contradictions and ambiguities inherent in finding ones’ fairytale “other half.”
Director Gordon accomplishes this by choosing to stand back and observe his characters, allowing them to exist with their flaws on full display rather than idealizing them. Given the immense flaws of his characters, Gordon’s approach runs the risk of allowing them to become fairly grating or horrific, but Gordon lucks out with his cast which manages to bring out the humanity in these people, even at their worst. This is particularly the case with Dudley Moore in the title role, as Arthur’s alcoholic, self-pitying man-child behaviour could have defined the character as a loathsome monster. Instead, Moore brings an innocence to the role that allows Arthur to be as charming and noble as his namesake, while never loosing sight of Arthur’s failings, such as his self-absorption and complete impotency when it comes to taking control of his life.
The fact that Arthur is likeable whilst still clearly being a incapable of looking after himself becomes the crux of the film’s deconstruction of fairytale narratives, as the audience is forced to both confront its desire for a fairytale ending while trying to understand why they want it. We want Arthur and Linda to get together, but what would such a relationship be when one is clearly unable to function in everyday life? If Linda marries Arthur, is she merely gaining a wealthy existence in exchange for being Arthur’s new caretaker? If so, and if we are rooting for this marriage to happen, are we in turn endorsing this conception of marriage? Lastly, if we are indeed supporting vision of Arthur and Linda's relationship, is the audience any better than that of Arthur’s father and grandmother who seek to marry him off to Susan? Are we not worse, given that Linda, like Hobson, will most likely allow Arthur to indulge in his current behaviour rather than force him to mature and sober up?
These questions underpin one crucial scene in which Hobson visits Linda, acting as a sort of fairy godmother figure by prompting her to go to Arthur’s engagement party in a dress he has provided. As written and directed by Gordon, the scene becomes something of a sales pitch from the ill Hobson towards Linda, trying to convince her that his position of Arthur’s “caretaker” is fulfilling. Gielgud plays the scene with an undercurrent of sadness from Hobson, an awareness that he is using his sophistication and intelligence to manipulate this woman into something she desires, but may not fully understand. It is a remarkable scene, and is mirrored later in the film when Linda shows similar awareness of the unlikelihood of Arthur being able to function as a provider when it appears he has been cut off from the family money, despite his grand planning and dreams. It is at this point Linda has become the new Hobson, complying with Arthur’s delusions for his “sake,” and Minnelli performs the scene magnificently.
Thus, the sadness that I described earlier is the sadness that comes from being aware of our willingness to go along with Arthur’s fantasy, but like Linda and Hobson, being aware of the truth of the situation. It would be so much easier if Arthur was unlovable, as he believes himself to be at one point in the film. However, we like Arthur, and as such when we see he and Linda drive off to their happy ending, it is with the bittersweet feeling rather than an uplifting emotion, no matter how great that Christopher Cross song is.
It is unsurprising then that audiences and critics were less than taken with the unnecessary sequel Arthur 2: On the Rocks (1988) seven years later, despite the well meaning intentions of that film’s director Bud Yorkin and screenwriter Andy Breckman, creator of the television series Monk (Steve Gordon died shortly after the release of Arthur, though I have been unable to find a cause of death). That film takes the undercurrent of sad reality and forces it right into the audience’s face, and as such the complexity of the original is lost. As with many films in this era of Hollywood filmmaking, Arthur is being remade with Russell Brand set to star. While I wish the crew and cast of that film luck, I question whether they will nail the charm or complexity of the original. It’s not impossible, and the presence of Helen Mirren gives me hope. However, in a more politically correct era, I can’t help but feel that this new take on the material will turn it into the very fairytale that the original film sought to question. We shall see next year.