A For Arthur
Arthur Bach is a drunk. He’s also stinking rich. The stinking '10-year-old gorgonzola' kind of rich that makes you kind of light-headed and want to punch him slightly. Except you couldn’t because he’s also just a fictional character.
The playboy star of 1981 comedy Arthur , Arthur Bach (Dudley Moore) is a spoiled-rotten rich boy living in New York City, and heir to his father’s $750m fortune. Catch is, he’ll only come into that money the day he marries upper class snoot Susan Johnson (Jill Eikenberry).
Except as soon as Arthur gives in to his family’s pressures and agrees to marry Susan, he meets dippy working class waitress Linda (Liza Minnelli), and falls head over coat-tails in love with her.
Ah, the path of true love never did run smooth. The path of Arthur ’s critical success, however, did. A cheeky rib-tickler that capitalised on star Dudley Moore’s penchant for comedy, it earned $82m at the US box office (big innings in those days) and four Oscar nominations.
On the night of the Academy Awards, it went home with two – one for Best Original Song (‘Arthur’s Theme’ sung by Christopher Cross) and Best Supporting Actor for John Gielgud, who played the part of Arthur’s father-figure butler Hobson. Then came a sequel…
After the success of Arthur , a sequel was perhaps an inevitability. So seven years later in 1988, Arthur 2: On The Rocks rolled around.
Reuniting Moore and Minnelli as Arthur and Linda, it followed Arthur’s attempts to get sober and land a job after the billionaire father of jilted Susan seizes control of his inheritance. Meanwhile, Linda wants a baby.
Paired with a crowd-pleasing appearance by John Gielgud as the ghost of Hobson, Arthur 2 suffered a chronic chase of sequelitis.
Panned by critics ("the result is about as funny as the plight of an alcoholic" moaned The Washington Post ), Minnelli bagged the Golden Raspberry for Worst Actress. Dudley Moore would go on to disown it. Needless to say, it was the end of Arthur. Until 2008…
Bang on 20 years after that disastrous sequel, Warner Bros announced in December 2008 that they would be remaking Arthur , with Russell Brand tagging the title role from Moore.
Having broken into mainstream cinema as outrageous rocker Aldous Snow in Forgetting Sarah Marshall , Brand was looking for more projects to sign up to.
Was he a fan of Moore’s Arthur ? “Yes, I’m a fan of the films,” Brand confirms. “I love Dudley Moore. I’m from Grays and Essex, Dudley was from Dagenham.
"I adored the original Arthur. Watched it loads. My dad loves it and used to quote stuff from it.”
Now that the film had its lead in the form of Britain’s lankiest, most loquacious rising star, it was time to find it a director…
“I was like, that’s a terrible idea. I love that movie. Why would you want to remake it?” recalls director Jason Winer.
A former stand-up comedian, and current co-executive producer/director of hit TV comedy Modern Family , Winer was approached early in 2010 about directing an Arthur remake – but hated the idea.
Having made his name acting in commercials for big sporting brands, as well as directing episodes of Kath And Kim and Samantha Who?, he’d been in the industry long enough to know when a project smelt bad. But then he heard who was being lined up to star.
“I heard it was Russell Brand and thought, well that’s a great idea,” Winer acquiesces, “because if there’s one person on Earth right now who redefines the part for a new generation that hasn’t seen the movie, it’s him.
“For a lot of people my age, Arthur was the first sort of naughty movie we saw on HBO when our parents weren’t around. It felt like this glimpse of a world I wasn’t quite supposed to see.”
Officially signing on to the remake in March 2010, just a month later, he’d cast his Hobson. But there was a surprise in store…
Hobson was a pivotal role in 1981’s Arthur . The calm amid the chaos, the unshakable butler was responsible for helping Arthur to make the right decisions. The character’s importance/impact was confirmed when Gielgud won that Oscar for the role.
But Winer had an ace up his sleeve for the remake: he was going to turn Hobson into a woman. And he wanted Helen Mirren for the part. The only problem? Mirren hated the original.
“I just didn't think a film about a drunken small guy was remotely funny,” the Calendar Girls actress says.
“The reality about alcoholics is that they're boring and tedious, and I'd spent enough nights in pubs with drunken boys to know it was not something I'd ever want to be caught up in.
“And I particularly objected to the way women were depicted – which was something I felt about most movies I saw back then – as kind of slave-enablers.”
Still, the changes made with regard to the remake appeased Mirren’s concerns (we're sure Brand had a hand in it), and she signed on as Hobson – now Arthur’s nanny – in April 2010.
Change Is Coming
Director Winer shared some of Mirren's concerns about the original. “When I rewatched it, it was as delightful as I'd remembered, but the character never grows,” he reasons.
“At the end, Arthur is just as drunk as he was at the beginning, and Liza Minnelli's character essentially steps into the role of caretaker.”
Clearly, the remake had some issues to address. “Modernisation is tricky,” admits writer Peter Baynham. “It's easy to get gimmicky. You don't want to fall into the trap of saying, ‘Look, he’s Arthur – but with an iPhone’.” Brand agreed.
“People's attitudes about wealth have changed, and attitudes about alcohol have changed enormously,” the actor says. “Dudley's performance was a brilliantly executed comedy drunk, and I have to be a lively, inventive drunk too.
“But I'm also interested in playing him as a prince who thinks he has the whole world but who then falls in love and has to make a decision, because until now he's outsourced his responsibility for making adult choices to another human being.” Sounds familiar...
On the surface, there are echoes in Arthur of Brand’s other on-screen party animal Aldous Snow, who he played to perfection in both Forgetting Sarah Marshall and last year’s raucous, surprisingly hilarious Get Him To The Greek .
But Brand, who’s battled alcoholism and drug abuse himself, insists that Aldous Snow and Arthur Bach are worlds apart.
“Playing two characters that have substance abuse issues is really no more significant than playing two characters that have a hat,” Brand says.
“Arthur is benevolent, whimsical, childlike, innocent prince, and Alduous is a dark, malevolent, twisted, sort of macabre purple brushstroke of contemporary celebrity; Arthur is a fairytale figure.” One similarity between the two, though, would be Brand's penchant for improvisation...
Brand prepared for Arthur by watching a number of other famous screen drunks, from James Stewart in The Philadelphia Story and Nic Cage in Leaving Las Vegas , to a variety of WC Fields’ movies.
Then, of course, there was the script. First drafted by Oscar-nominated screenwriter Peter Baynham ( Borat ), his pass then went to Jared Stern for a bit of a buff.
When Jason Winer took the remake’s helm, he then turned to his trusty Modern Family writing team to help him give the script a line-by-line tune-up. Baynham, however, didn’t feel offended by the polishes.
“Whatever makes the film better,” he says. “You'd be crazy, as a writer, to have someone like Russell and not take the opportunity to revise and improve on the spot, given his improvisational skills.”
And improvise Brand did. “I changed the script all the time. I improvised all the time,” he admits. “It’s one of the things that I think helps me to enjoy what I do for a living, to keep spontaneity.
“Not that Peter Baynham isn’t a wonderful writer. And being British, it’s a particular privilege to work with him, being so fond of his work. Still, improvisation is integral to what I do.” Now he needed a snooty love interest…
“She's like a fairy princess,” Brand says of co-star Jennifer Garner. “There's a brand of red-velvet cake, her mouth is made of that. She smashes you in the mouth [ in ] those kissing scenes. If I was Ben Affleck, man I'd be pissed off.”
For the role of Susan Johnson, the elite young lady whom Arthur’s family want him to marry, Winer hired Jennifer Garner. Meanwhile, the role of her deeply religious father was given to Nick Nolte.
“It’s nice to see a dark and villainous side to Jennifer Garner,” Brand notes. “It’s interesting. She’s obviously a very sweet-natured woman.”
The final major role left to be cast was that of Naomi (formerly Linda), the working class girl who Arthur falls for instead of Susan. After seeing Greta Gerwig in Ben Stiller’s Greenberg , Brand knew he’d found his girl.
“I went to see Greenberg and I thought she was gorgeous,” he says. “Such a lovely and unusual performance and she was so sweet. I think she’s delightful.
“She’s got a very, very quick mind and a beautiful sensibility, and an aesthetic that’s very in keeping with this film, which retains some of the romance of the original, whilst incorporating a more contemporary aesthetic and cinematic style. She’s the very kind of woman you’d give up a billion dollars for.”
For Greta, working with Russell was a hoot…
“I met Russell while I was auditioning for Arthur , and it was one of those auditions that felt like playing, not performing,” Gerwig says. “It just felt like I went in and we had this great script written by Peter Baynham, and then they let us improv.
“And it just felt like I had a half an hour of playing with the funniest person I’ve ever met. So I instantly wanted to do it very badly. But it also felt so effortless, in a way, and I think that that’s really a gift on a film like this.”
For the young actress, who also appears in this year’s Natalie Portman-Ashton Kutcher vehicle No Strings Attached , stepping into the shoes of Liza Minnelli was a daunting task.
“I wasn’t actually born when the original was made,” she says, “but I really loved it.
"I think that what Liza Minnelli is as an actress, both in this film and all of her films, is that she’s such an individual that I think it would be a mistake to try to imitate it in any way.” Filming, though, would provide its own unique challenges…
New York City
Shooting Arthur in New York City was essential to the film’s look and feel. With the city acting as a symbol for Arthur’s decadent lifestyle – all grand skyscrapers and chic fashion – Winer and co shot at over a dozen locations around the city’s five boroughs.
Gerwig, who attended Barnard College in New York and still lives there now, wasn’t surprised at the reactions the shooting inspired.
While some members of the public stopped to gape at filming, others were none-too-pleased about the disruption to their day.
“When we were shooting at Grand Central there were a number of angry commuters from New York who yelled at us,” she recalls, “they don’t care who you are or what you’re doing all they care is that you’re messing up their day.
“I think people love New York for the attitude that New York throws back at them. I think everyone at a certain level enjoys being put in their place a bit.” Then there was the paparazzi…
Considering all the exterior shooting that was going on for Arthur , it came as no surprise that the paparazzi flocked to the set by the truckload.
Within days of filming, shots of Brand running down a street in blue and purple briefs surfaced, before snaps of him in a Batman & Robin -style Batman costume also hit the interweb.
“It's unbelievable,” Mirren said while filming, “I'm just glad it's a comedy because if I had to do dramatic acting with 30 cameras going off, it would be hopeless.”
Mirren, who’s never been portrayed as anything but thoroughly ladylike, also revealed an unexpectedly naughty side to Brand during shooting…
“She’s so exquisitely eloquent and delightful,” Brand says of his co-star, who he also worked with on Julia Taymor’s upcoming Shakespeare reimagining The Tempest .
During one particular scene, though, Mirren showed that she can be just as filthy as Brand.
“I got in bed with her,” says Brand. “[ She was ] reading me bedtime stories. and one time she read a dirty version of it… Expecting it to be one of those Frog and Toad stories, those sweet stories and she’s like…
“'Toad took frog and mounted him from behind and entered him deeply and smoothly with rhythmic strokes.’” I’m like, ‘Helen, this is being filmed, as part of a film with a broad appeal, one would hope.’ So, she’s special, Helen Mirren.” A bit like Arthur...
A New Arthur
Thirty years after a drunken Arthur Bach made his big screen debut in the form of Dudley Moore, Russell Brand’s Arthur will take his stumbling bow on 22 April.
For Brand and Winer, their movie is definitely its own entity. And in its completed form remind them of other movies – not just the 1981 Arthur .
“The thing it reminds me most of in cinema is Big ,” muses Brand. “That’s what the character’s like. Other than Dudley Moore’s original, it reminds me of Tom Hanks in Big .
"He’s someone that just doesn’t understand the rules of contemporary life. He doesn’t understand how to socialize correctly or how to behave.
“I was inspired by movies from the ‘70’s and ‘80’s,” says Winer. “Oddly, a movie I looked at a lot in preparation for this movie was Tootsie , which has great chemistry between the actors, tonally has some really broad, funny, laugh-out-loud moments but has this dramatic core…
“For me, Tootsie was a great tonal comparison for what we’re doing with the updated version of Arthur . I can’t say why exactly, but that was in my head and in my blood, and certainly that are an homage to Tootsie as much as they are to the original Arthur .”