The voice is not as deep as I had expected, but it’s certainly warmer. It was, however, authoritative enough for me to nervously anticipate that she might chastise me at any time, in the manner of Golden Girl Dorothy silencing Sophia (Estelle Getty) with a determined Ma-a!
As is so often the case in such circumstances, Bea Arthur is in a different voice to her alter egos, from the domineering Dorothy, to the forthright Maude, or the intoxicated Vera Charles. Of course she’s practised at this, having spent years insisting that she’s not as political as Maude or as obnoxious as Dorothy. I’m prepared to believe it, partly because she still kind of scares me.
We start simple: why the Gay Games?
It’s wonderful! I can’t think of a better time to be in town, with gay men everywhere, says Arthur. It’s a slightly weird answer, but Arthur’s been a gay icon (and known it) for a long time. Still, she wants to make it clear that she’s not Judy Garland, another odd comment, except she adds that she doesn’t want anyone to be disappointed.
This seems unlikely. And Then There’s Bea was nominated for a Tony Award this year (she lost to Elaine Stritch), not bad for a woman who was born in 1926 (or 1923, according to some devoted but pedantic fans). Although her early career success was on Broadway, most memorably (I’m told) as Auntie Mame’s alcoholic actress friend Vera Charles, Arthur soon found herself with her own television show. Maude offered a leftie/liberal counterpoint to All In The Family’s Archie Bunker, with Arthur an unexpected televisual figurehead for 70s feminists. (When the character Maude chose to have an abortion, for example, there were protests in the streets.) By the 1980s, she starred in a sitcom about four single women looking for love and satisfaction, including one sexpot and one prude. Before Sex And The City, The Golden Girls were the septuagenarians in Miami, and gay men went nuts.
They were watching us in bars and dressing up as all of us. I didn’t really understand it! laughs Arthur. I didn’t even think of the show as being about older women. It was just that the writing was so good.
I apologise upfront for the next question, explaining that, given our readership, I really have to ask it. The film version of Mame?
One of the great embarrassments of my career, says Arthur, deadpan. I mean, Lucy was one of the all-time great clowns, but everyone agreed that she was terribly, terribly miscast. And all I could think was, why didn’t they let Angela [Lansbury] do it?
Arthur then starts asking about Sydney weather in November (she lives in LA with her husband Gene Saks and wonders if it will be chilly at night) and expresses her keen desire to dine again at Tetsuya’s. She loves Australia so much, but unlike other visiting celebs, there’s a limit to her adoration.
I had one night in Alice Springs, says Arthur, slipping into those frighteningly deep tones. I will never forget it as long as I live -¦ The plane was late getting to Alice Springs. It was too late to see Ayers Rock. The heat was oppressive. Everybody was wearing those funny hats with corks dangling from them, you know, so that you could shake ’em to get rid of the black flies. It was ghastly!
And Then There’s Bea plays at the Parade Theatre, 215 Anzac Parade, Kensington from 29 October to 10 November at 8pm. Tickets are $75 plus booking fee, and may be booked on 9266 4020. For more information visit www.sydney2002.org.au.