Beatrice Arthur: The Greatest of the Vera Charles
I happen to be an enormous fan of the musical Mame. I find it so incredibly joyous and tuneful, full of bright humor and characters that are so much fun. My love affair with Mame, believe it or not, started with a high school production I saw back in the 1980s. I knew nothing about the show at all (I was 16 at the time and just starting on my journey into the world of Broadway musicals). When I left the theatre, I knew I had to own the original cast album as soon as possible (unaware that I was that it starred the incomparable Angela Lansbury and my favorite TV actress (Maude AND The Golden Girls) Beatrice Arthur in a scene-stealing supporting role. A few days later, I went with my stepfather to a used record store (he was a D.J. at a local radio station and always looking for old records). I, as I usually did, wandered off to the “Movies and Shows” section of shop. There I found, not one, but two records of Mame: the original Broadway cast album and the Lucille Ball movie soundtrack. We won’t get into the latter (perhaps a discussion for another day), but the former soon became my most played album for at least a year.
In listening to the original Broadway cast recording of Mame, I found myself particularly taken with Bea Arthur’s take on the acerbic actress Vera Charles, the title character’s sidekick and best friend. Her dead-pan delivery, though not visible on the album, was certainly audible, playing to my sense of humor in her two big numbers, the melodramatic “Man in the Moon” and the show-stopping duet with Lansbury, the caustic “Bosom Buddies.” Of course, I needed to know more. Some research led me to find out that Arthur had won the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical that year. Knowing that she reprised her role in the film version of Mame, I had to get my hands on that movie so I could at least get a taste of what her stage performance was like (Mame had opened on Broadway in 1966, seven years before I was born). Finding the film, however, was almost an impossibility. Every video store I visited did not have it in their inventory. Then, one day in 1990, I wandered into a rental shop in the basement of a local grocery store, and there it was, in a black box with a cartoon of Lucille Ball in roller skates on the cover. I immediately rented it!
Well, the movie itself was an earnest effort that failed miserably with the wrong actress in the lead and a cold, sterile design sucking every ounce of warmth out of a musical I had always associated with color and warmth (I said I wasn’t going to get into this, but I guess I have to). Its myriad detractions aside, Beatrice Arthur was wonderful, a bright spot that brought the film to life every moment she was onscreen. Since then, I have seen an occasional clip of Arthur playing Vera Charles in the stage production, and I am convinced that she understood this character better than anyone else who has played the role. I have seen Mame myriad times since I fell in love with it, and I have never seen an actress land the humor the way that Arthur did. In fact, it may be my personal quest to find a production where someone, anyone, can erase my memories of Arthur and still make me laugh just as hard.
But why did Arthur succeed so brilliantly in the role? She certainly wasn’t known for her lovely singing voice, albeit a capable and distinct one, perfect for a certain type of character role. She was a handsome woman, tall, with a striking bone structure, angular facial features, and piercing eyes. This gave her a bearing that was larger-than-life and slightly intimidating. Arthur knew how to use what she had to her advantage, and her physical performances were always a marriage of her robust femininity and regal elegance, with punctuated bursts of comedic motion. She could glide one moment, and pounce the next. But that was only a small part in how she made Vera Charles work.
What made Beatrice Arthur the indelible Vera Charles was in her choices about the character. Though it is merely conjecture on my part, I believe Arthur approached the role as if she were in a musical called Vera and not Mame. She played every scene as if the story were revolving around her, as if Mame Dennis was simply an amusing supporting character in the story of Vera’s life. Even in the film, notice how she appears to be in an entirely different reality than everyone else in the story. When she chimes in with a one-liner or quip, it’s as if she is popping in the door, saying high, and then returning to the Broadway production that is her constant state of being. Vera is a diva actress after all, and she is also an inebriate, so this interpretation makes sense. Her “reality” is seldom reality, an alternative version of it, a world of stage magic, bright lights, greasepaint, and martini-induced glory. The fact that she thinks she is such a terrific bosom buddy and an amazing stage talent is made all-the-more hilarious by the fact she is oblivious to the truth. So many actresses have approached Vera as if she is a comedic character, and play each joke towards a punchline. Arthur did not. She played every joke with a sincerity fueling every word that came out of her mouth, no matter how ludicrous.
I am, by no means, suggesting that every actress should play Vera Charles the way that Beatrice Arthur did. That would be unfair, impossible, and would lead to disappointment. I just wanted to take a minute and celebrate an actress that I admire and who, in my own personal estimation, found a way to make a supporting character unforgettable. I miss Beatrice Arthur. I do. Character actresses (and actors) of her ilk just aren’t as present in the theatre scene the way they once were. Her Vera Charles will always be MY Vera Charles, because it was a performance of perfection. I look forward to the production of Mame that casts a Vera that will compete with that memory, but until then, she remains my golden girl in the role.