Right on, Bea

April 30, 2009

Elizabeth Schulte looks back at the life of actress Beatrice Arthur and her most famous role--as the "women's libber" Maude.

WHEN YOU hear a five-foot-nine, 47-year-old woman with a deep, husky voice, one of the last things most people think of today is a prime-time television star. But go back to 1972, when the women's liberation movement was in full swing, and the choice was obvious.

The sitcom Maude, which ran from a 1972 to 1978, starred Beatrice Arthur as the liberal feminist head of her Westchester, N.Y., household. Bea Arthur died on April 25 at the age of 86 of lung cancer. Arthur's depiction of Maude--oftentimes abrasive, sometimes sensitive and always funny--made a mark forever on television comedy history.

Before television, Arthur had a long career on the stage in musical theater. In 1947, Arthur moved to New York City to study theater at New School for Social Research. Her classmates included Marlon Brando, Walter Matthau and Tony Curtis.

In 1954, she got a part in the off-Broadway premier of the English version of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht's Three Penny Opera, alongside Lotte Lenya. With her big voice and big stage presence, she dominated in later roles as Vera Charles in Mame and Yente the Matchmaker in Fiddler on the Roof.

Bea Arthur as the title character in Maude
Bea Arthur as the title character in Maude

She said in an interview several years ago that she always dreamed of playing the big female leads, of being the actress "wearing the white dress," but it never happened for her on the stage. Arthur said that something actress and movie magazine beauty Tallulah Bankhead said to her stuck with her: "It's all about bone structure."

Despite what Bankhead said, Arthur's imposing presence and bass-baritone voice didn't stop her from becoming an unforgettable comedic talent and stage presence. As late as 2002, she returned to Broadway to star in a show that incorporated stories and songs about her life and career.

Arthur managed to span several decades of the television era, from the George Gobel Show in the 1950s to The Golden Girls--the only sitcom where all the lead characters were all older women (and they all have sex lives) in the 1980s. In her later years, she made several cameos, including the voice of the "Femputer" that ruled the giant Amazonian women on an episode of the animated TV comedy Futurama.

BUT MORE than anything else, Bea Arthur will be remembered for her role in Maude. In 1972, television writer Norman Lear called with an offer for Arthur to take on the part of Maude Findlay, the "women's libber" cousin of Edith Bunker on All in the Family. Liberal to a fault, Maude was supposed to be the antithesis of Edith's husband Archie.

Maude's theme song gives you the picture:

Lady Godiva was a freedom rider
She didn't care if the whole world looked.
Joan of Arc with the Lord to guide her
She was a sister who really cooked.
Isadora was the first bra burner
And you're glad she showed up. (Oh yeah)
And when the country was falling apart
Betsy Ross got it all sewed up.
And then there's Maude...
That old compromisin', enterprisin', anything but tranquilizing,
Right on Maude.

Like the characters on All in the Family, Maude was an exaggeration of the idea of the middle-class liberal. She was loud and opinionated, but at the same time, Maude wasn't always completely sure what doing the right thing meant.

Oftentimes, Lear was poking fun at this middle-class person with a conscience whose guilt sometimes got in the way of her common sense. For instance, in one episode, Maude insists on her new Black maid walking through the front door, because of the way it will look to the neighbors--even though the woman really wants to go through the back door, since it's easier for her to do her work.

Maude was like no other woman on television until that time--she was divorced (four times), she was outspoken, she was brash and she was pushing 50. And while her character may not have always been right, Maude grappled with themes and issues in ways that are unheard-of today.

Maude dealt with racism, sexual equality, divorce, menopause, mental illness, alcoholism--the list goes on. In one episode, Maude points out the hypocrisy of drug laws, where poor people get arrested for a tiny bit of marijuana while middle-class people pop handfuls of prescription drugs with their cocktails.

"We tackled everything except hemorrhoids," Bea Arthur said in a 2001 interview with the Archive of American Television. And while not everyone will agree with everything it said, the show embraced the debates and discussions of the time--managing to be irreverent, but also take things seriously. The war in Vietnam, the women's movement, the Black Power movement--they were all topics.

Reflecting the political climate of the 1970s, Maude usually took the right side, and Maude usually won. Whether it was words of warning to her husband, Walter--"God will get you for that, Walter"--or a jab at her Republican neighbor's support for Richard Nixon, Maude usually won the fight.

The best controversial episodes, however, were those about Maude's unplanned pregnancy and decision to seek an abortion. Not only had no other TV show ever talked about abortion before, no show has talked about it in the same way since.

The two-part episode was broadcast in November 1972, just two months after abortion became legal in New York state. It was not until January 1973 that the Supreme Court made its ruling on Roe v. Wade, making women's right to abortion the law of the land.

Two CBS affiliates canceled the episodes, called "Maude's Dilemma," and 32 affiliates were pressured by abortion opponents not to rerun the segments in the summer of 1973. But some 65 million people tuned into the second airing of the program.

The episodes are available online and well worth watching. It's immensely liberating to see people in a sitcom talk frankly about a woman's right to control her own body. And while there are also any number of vasectomy and morning sickness jokes to go around, these episodes are dead serious.

As Maude's grown daughter Carol (played by Adrienne Barbeau) assures her:

Mother, we are free, we finally have the right to decide what we can do with our own bodies...You're just scared, and it's as simple as going to the dentist...Listen to me, it's a simple operation now. But when you were growing up, it was illegal, and it was dangerous, and it was sinister, and you've never gotten over that...it's not your fault, when you were young, abortion was a dirty word. It's not anymore. You think about that.

Maude responds by embracing her daughter.

The resolution Maude eventually reaches with her husband is just as satisfying. Over a game of gin in bed, Walter admits that he never wanted to have children and has always felt guilty about feeling that way (another conversation that never happens between a couple on TV.) When it's clear that Maude has decided on the abortion, Walter says:

For you, Maude, for me, in the privacy of our own lives, you are doing the right thing.

Here's to hoping a new generation of struggles will shake things up and bring us the kind of television that reflects actual people's concerns and hopes. That's reality TV that I can't wait for.

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