HOLLYBLOG: The original's greatest gift was a boatload of brilliant one-line zingers
By Peter Mehlman
Swarms and swarms of such happy moviegoers left the Beekman Theater one afternoon in 1981, a golden New York weekday that made you look around and think, “Does anyone in this city have a job?”
Then again, the title character of the movie was a pathologically work-averse New Yorker named Arthur and the one negative comment at the exits was a killer Upper East Side nitpick: “They blew it. The Rolls Royce at the end had a Z license plate, so you know it was a rental. Otherwise, it was a perfect movie.”
Yes, perfect. A perfect New York movie.
Thirty years later, our best memories are hard targets: Hollywood is doing a remake of "Arthur." Really, you would think the Landmarks Preservation Commission can expand its purview and do something about this. It saves the Brill and Spring Mills Buildings from desecration, why not its movies?
And let’s not kid ourselves. The "Arthur" remake will be a desecration; the movie equivalent of Lazlo Toth taking a hammer to the Pieta. (Imagine the studio job offers that must have landed him.)
Speaking of Michelangelo, the film business likes referring to itself as an “art form.” The one nice thing about Wall Street is that bankers, in trying to make money, admit they’re in it for the money. Those behind the new "Arthur" won’t/can’t be so blunt. Meetings and meetings and meetings will explore the best immaculate-hearted rationale for the project.
“We loved 'Arthur' and you must destroy the things you love.”
What? No, no. That’s no good.
“Woody wouldn’t let us re-make 'Manhattan.'”
No! That makes us sound like we’re not discerning in our unoriginality.
“(Writer/director) Steve Gordon passed away, as did the stars Dudley Moore and Sir John Gielgud, may they rest in peace. We’re remaking the film because (a) we wanted to honor them and (b) Who’s going to stop us?”
Well, that’s closer but, let’s talk about this some more.
The one motivation behind the project you can quickly dismiss is art. For a New York audience in particular, "Arthur" cannot be renovated, redecorated, punched up, updated or CGI-ed. In a word, it cannot be improved upon. Steve Gordon’s script was not only perfect in tone and wit, it served the city a buffet of illumination, comfort, wisdom and romance.
"Arthur" melded New York’s opposites, unveiling the prim, mysterious world of Upper East Side Von Bulow wealth with the plastic-napkin-holder-spouse-on-spouse screamers of Queens. The invisible rich and forgotten middle-class were interchangeably miserable and hopeful, loathsome and lovable. By the closing credits, the melting pot had melted into the most romantic city on Earth. Neat trick.
But "Arthur's" greatest gift was a boatload of brilliant one-line zingers. “One must usually go to a bowling alley to meet someone of your stature.” In a city where you would be happy to die after hitting a stranger with such a great put-down that he or she would have no choice but to kill you, "Arthur" was a gold mine of smart-bomb wit.
In fact, if you have the connections, you can read an early draft of "Arthur" and bone up on the trove of amazing lines that were edited out.
Now, there are rumors that Meryl Streep will be in the cast of the remake and, if true, you can only hope she plays the role of Arthur. She clearly can do anything so at least that would be intriguing. Then again, Dudley Moore was as close to perfect as you can get in a comic performance. The physicality of his perpetual drunkenness was balletic. His line readings -- “Don’t you wish you were me? I know I do.”– were crazy funny and subtly sad in a single sound.
Or maybe Ms. Streep will play the Sir John Gielgud role of Hobson. Again, you can never count her out, but the Queen doesn’t throw around those knighthoods for they’re lunch. Sir John could have earned the big kneel for Arthur alone. (Do they kneel when knighted? Whatever.)
Since "Arthur," the great, witty New York romantic comedy has vanished. ("Hannah and Her Sisters"? Great, New York, witty, romantic ... not really a comedy. "Ground Hog Day"? Great, romantic, witty ... set in Pungsatawny. If you mix all the romantic comedy misses and near-misses since then with just a smattering of the recurrent mistakes seen in most re-makes, you can pretty soundly predict that the new "Arthur" will most resemble "You’ve Got Mail."
Are you back from the vomitorium yet?
The economics of movie-making is way over or under my head but still, it’s hard to see how a new "Arthur" makes business sense. Part of the incentive probably stems from the eternal Hollywood question: How can we get around this quality problem? But aside from that, someone must be assuming that people who loved the original will flock to the copy. Maybe there’s no underestimating that chunk of people who get intense joy out of saying, “It wasn’t as good as the original.”
Then again, no one showed up for "Arthur II: on the Rock." Not even Steve Gordon, who had nothing to do with it.
Or maybe the movie business is taking a vertically integrated cue from the music business, the only art form that goes even further in ripping itself off. Between cover versions and sampling, you could transfer the ethics of the record industry to literary fiction and get a novel ending with “Gatsby was totally whacked on the green light ...”
That’s only a slight exaggeration of the disasters that occur in remakes or “updates” of great movies. With no exaggeration at all, they never work. "The Manchurian Candidate." "Psycho." "Shop Around the Corner." "The Getaway." "Alfie." "Cape Fear." Had enough?
Actually, looking into remaking bad movies makes more sense. At least there’s a pool of them that were good concepts, poorly executed.
decade or so ago, a movie executive marveled at the brilliance of Robert Evans’ pitch to do a remake of "The Out of Towners." How the pitch of a remake can be brilliant is another mystery unsolvable to the outside world. Still, the original was horrendous and the remake –
Oh wait, that was horrendous, too.
Maybe it’s the whole concept of re-makes that doesn’t work. In shaky economic times, American business always goes back to things that worked in the past. But movie-making is supposed to be a creative business. Perhaps a better route would to fight the economy by being more creative instead of walking around and wondering, “How can we get around this quality problem?”
After graduating from the University of Maryland, Peter Mehlman started his career as a writer for the Washington Post. He slid from print journalism to television when, from 1982 to 1984, he wrote for and produced the television series, “SportsBeat” with Howard Cosell. For the next five years he returned to writing full sentences as a freelance writer in New York. His byline appeared in numerous national publications including the New York Times magazine, GQ, Esquire and every women’s magazine imaginable...
In 1989 he moved to Los Angeles where he bumped into Larry David, whom he'd met twice in New York. David, was developing “a little show with Jerry Seinfeld”, and invited Mehlman to submit a sample script. Having never written a script, Mehlman sent a humor piece he had written for the New York Times Magazine. Jerry Seinfeld loved it and gave Mehlman a writing assignment, out of which came the series’ first freelance episode, “The Apartment.” Mehlman was hired for the first full season of “Seinfeld” (1991-92) and wrote 23 episodes during the next six years and became an executive producer.
Mehlman is most famous for his “Yada Yada” episode, and he is also the author of such now classic Seinfeld-isms as “spongeworthy” and “shrinkage” and “double-dipping.”
In 1997, Mehlman joined DreamWorks and created “It’s like, you know...,” a scathing look at Los Angeles. In recent years, he has continued creating TV shows, writing screenplays and humor pieces for NPR, Esquire, The New York Times, Washington Post and LA Times while also appearing on-camera for TNT Sports and his own web program “Pete Mehlman’s Narrow World of Sports."