Beatrice Arthur could get a huge laugh with just a long, hard, silent stare. When she opened her mouth, her ringingly authoritative voice brought forth another wave of laughter. To defy her as Maude Findlay in Maude, or as Dorothy Zbornak in Golden Girls, was foolish: she’d crush you. No one upstaged Bea Arthur, yet no one, performer or TV viewer, resented her for that. Indeed, this was the source of her thunderbolt comic power. Other women may rival her as TV icons (Lucille Ball, Mary Tyler Moore), but no woman ever made so many people so happy by being so imperious, so decisive, so just plain bossy.
Look at Maude, which premiered in 1972 as a spin-off from All In The Family. Its best episodes play out in front of the studio audience like complete little plays; the laughter is frequently so explosive, Arthur has to do that stage-freeze thing, standing motionless until her next line can be heard. A force of intimidation, Arthur made upper-middle-class liberal Maude brayingly noisy. She towered over her TV husband Walter (Bill Macy) and daughter Carol (Adrienne Barbeau). The show’s humor was often rooted in seriousness (the revolutionary 1972 Maude-gets-an-abortion episode) and anger (countless tantrums directed at anyone Maude thought stupid), and Arthur’s innate gravity was her greatest comic weapon: she was fearless about being unlikable, and we liked her all the more for exactly that quality.
Arthur and the writers knew how to play up her mighty strengths. Just look at this superb clip, in which she answers the phone and corrects the caller (“This is Mrs. Findlay; Mr. Findlay has a much higher voice”) and her first meeting with the housekeeper Florida (the extraordinary Esther Rolle) plays out like a clash of the titans:
On Golden Girls, as Dorothy, Arthur ruled the aging hen house with caustic slashes of sarcasm. For Arthur, Golden Girls was a further refinement of everything she did in Maude. The second series demonstrated how she could modulate her talent to fit into an ensemble of equals… even though she made you know that Dorothy considered herself superior to all she surveyed.
Because we live in a pop culture that thrives on parody and irreverence, Bea Arthur existed in the popular imagination during her final years as the punchline to jokes about her deep voice and her Amazonian stature (try Googling her name and “mannish” and you’ll see what I mean). She had a huge gay following, yet never became a figure of camp ridicule. Whether playing a character or being herself – she was a delightfully clever, articulate, self-deprecating guest on talk and variety shows – Arthur allowed you to both identify with her and to admire her. There was a lot to admire.