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Op-ed: How Bea Arthur and Maude Changed My Life

Op-ed: How Bea Arthur and Maude Changed My Life


Now that Maude is available to all, a gay filmmaker explains why this feminist sitcom is a must-see.

Over the past 30 years I've had the pleasure to direct many of the legendary actresses I grew up watching on TV as a young gay kid in Portland, Ore. I'm rarely starstruck, but once in a while I'll work with a diva who summons the excitement and wonder of my younger self.

Directing Marcia Brady herself, Maureen McCormick, is a perfect example. Here was an icon of my childhood working with me! On an interesting note, she mentioned she had as much fan mail from gay men as straight. Mink Stole was another delight to direct, and I will never forget attending a screening of Leather Jacket Love Story in San Francisco at the Red Vic Theater, where she received a standing ovation from a packed house. The tears flowed as Mink basked in the adoration of the crowd. These two ladies are only the beginning, as Susan Anton, Dee Wallace, Carroll Baker, Louise Lasser, Edy Williams, Kitten Natividad, Morgan Fairchild, Jennifer Rhodes, Joanna Cassidy, are other ladies I've admired and had the pleasure to work with on various projects, and luckily the list goes on and on.

After having the honor of working with so many wonderful women, one of my fondest memories was working with the legendary scream queen Adrienne Barbeau. I am a huge fan of hers, and it isn't because she starred in so many horror flicks, but because of the impression she made on me in the groundbreaking sitcom Maude, starring the indomitable Bea Arthur.

When it came time to cast my film Ring of Darkness, I knew I had to have her play the voodoo queen. On set she was very complimentary on how quickly and efficiently I worked (similar to her ex-husband). I said, "Oh, your ex-husband is a director?" She replied, "Yes, his name is John Carpenter." Believe it or not, I had completely forgotten that she was once married to the director of Halloween, The Fog, and Escape From New York. She was a little surprised by that, but I had to be honest with her. I told her that the main reason I cast her was that she had played the daughter of the most memorable television character of my youth, Maude Findlay, brought to fiery life by the incredible Tony-winning Arthur.

Cast_of_maudex633_0Above, cast members of Maude: Bill Macy (Walter Findlay), Bea Arthur (Maude Findlay), Rue McClanahan (Vivian Cavender Harmon), and Adrienne Barbeau (Carol Traynor)

When I was a child watching this show, my father was curious as to why his 13-year-old son's favorite TV show centered around the trials of a middle-aged housewife. She played the cousin-in-law of Archie Bunker from All in the Family, and I have a feeling my father wished I'd related more to Mr. Bunker. Yes, he and I had "that" conversation later, and looking back on things, I realize Maude helped bring me out of the closet.

There is something about Bea Arthur -- I couldn't take my eyes off of her, and she had a strength and humor that I responded to. But I'm not alone, as this would continue on into The Golden Girls, where her character Dorothy Zbornak, along with her roommates -- Blanche, Rose, and her mother, Sophia -- helped the next generation with their comedic take on many political and social topics. Who could forget Dorothy's friend Jean, who falls in love with Rose after a stay at the house, or Blanche's brother Clayton coming out, and then in a later episode announcing his engagement to his longtime boyfriend?

Maude_dvd_setx300_0But without Maude, Dorothy would never have come to pass. This woman was everything I wanted to be; she was hilarious, smart, sassy, and gutsy. To me, she was the boldest character on TV in the early 1970s. Maude and the show tackled many subjects that were considered taboo at the time, and she was the first lead character on television to have an abortion. The episode where a gay bar is opening down the street from Maude's home is another classic, and with her usual wit and humor, and some surprisingly dark and dramatic moments, Arthur's Maude knocked it out of the park.

Of course, who could forget Maude's impossibly catchy theme song, with the opening line "Lady Godiva was a freedom rider, she didn't care if the whole world looked," which perfectly encompasses the spirit of the show, the lead character, and the changing social climate.

If you haven't seen that episode, then here's your chance! The complete collection of Maude (all six seasons, 141 episodes) arrived on DVD this week from Shout! Factory. Buy it, and I dare you to try to get the theme song out of your head.

DAVID DECOTEAU's latest movie, Knock 'Em Dead, starring Rae Dawn Chong, Debra Wilson, Anne Marie Johnson, Omarosa, and Jackee Harry, is now available on VOD and DVD nationwide.

Watch the infectious theme song you know and love on the following page.

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David DeCoteau