Well, it had to happen. They’re remaking Arthur. With Russell Brand.
The original Arthur, written and directed by Steve Gordon, and starring Dudley Moore in the title role, is one of those almost-great movies with so much great and non-great in it, it’s hard to not not watch all of it, over and over again.
What it has is a sensational first half, loaded with rapid-fire one-liners so well-crafted, rhythmically attuned, and deliciously delivered (by Moore, of course), one can’t help but compare the high points of the film to Noel Coward’s best moments. The difficult thing about one-liners, as low-level productions of Coward and Wilde have famously shown, is that, when mishandled, they can come off as arch, or improbable to the point of distancing the players from the play. They can sound like spoken literature, not dialogue.
In Arthur (and while we’re at it, Arthur 2: On the Rocks), Dudley Moore surmounts the challenge by speaking his lines not to declaim the joke, but as if to entertain himself. And only himself. Watching Moore, we understand that Arthur, who laughs sometimes just to laugh, is an unyielding, almost compulsive hedonist of humor. He even finds his own laughter funny, which is funny. In fact, Arthur gets such a kick out of Arthur, he doesn’t seem to care that no one else does. That makes him a kind of stand-up deposed, and creates a pathos lacking in most contemporary interpretations of Coward, or Wilde, or even Preston Sturges, who often hurries his jokes on through without stopping for a moment to ask why.
It means that Moore’s Arthur, for all of his frivolous whimsy, is absolutely real. Chaplin had that too.
The first twenty minutes of Arthur are among the funniest twenty minutes of film ever shot. Then Steve Gordon lets it get sentimental, he pushes Moore to mush, and before our very eyes, Liza Minnelli (oh yes, she’s in it too) seems to shove a pluck-filled hypodermic needled into her best vein and overdose for two hours. It’s a shame. But that makes it good fodder for a remake.
If there is one thing in Arthur that never flags, it’s John Gielgud. As Arthur’s butler/nanny, Gielgud is unspeakably gud. Like all brilliant actors, Sir John had the rare ability to fuse one attitude with its opposite, and linger, somehow, in the gulf. To observe him negotiate irritation and devotion is to witness a lifetime’s accumulation of skill distilled into a single performance. And as a former Cowardian, and onetime muse to Coward himself, Gielgud knows his way around a bon mot. Tynan described the actor’s technique as a feat of nimble grace. In 1953, he wrote, “Gielgud, seizing a parasol, crosses by tightrope.”
As I write this, I see that Meryl Streep is rumored to take on the Gielgud part. I’ll alert the media.