Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.
Recipient: Dudley Moore
Born: April 19, 1935
Died: March 27, 2002 (66 years old)
Died: March 27, 2002 (66 years old)
Nomination: Best Actor - Arthur (nominated) as Arthur Bach
He was one of England's biggest talents with a long and storied comedy career alongside Peter Cook. However, what were the odds that he would stand any chance as an actor in a comic film? With Arthur, he did something unthinkable. He not only made a film that stood out as a crowd favorite, but also earned him a nomination for playing an alcoholic in a post-The Lost Weekend world where alcoholism was considered bad and there wasn't anything positive to be associated with it. Instead, he turned his routine into the classiest W.C. Fields routine with plenty of slapstick, quick comebacks and typical British charm. He was charismatic in ways that elevated an otherwise basic premise that didn't earn too many other comedic alcoholics an Oscar nomination.
Of course, sometimes a performance is just reliant on the actor. As evident by the remake with Russell Brand, not just anyone can play a lovable drunk. There has to be a complicated story in the mix and the character has to be believable. Arthur's tale of debauchery and inability to grow up may be familiar topics, but they were handled with a sense of purpose when the comedy is able to slowly allow sentiments to come in as he swoons Liza Minelli and has a touching relationship with his butler. For all of the silly jokes, there was a feeling that Arthur was a real man thanks to Moore's top notch performance.
Arthur seems like a fluke of a movie that happened to be in a time when society was questioning economic values through films as varying as Trading Places and Wall Street. While both had very different agendas, Arthur was pretty much about taking the pretentious nature of it out of the equation and leaving behind something more traditional to British comedy. It was a happy ending with a poignant yet economic commentary piece that elevated basic material into something astounding. It humanized the rich without making them despicable and instead got by on understanding that deep down, we all want the same values and have our own crutches to get over. For Arthur, that just happens to be maturity as symbolized through drinking.
Arthur was especially odd because it was shortly followed by a sequel called Arthur 2: On the Rocks, which proved that the magic couldn't be captured again. It seems that as society evolves and becomes more sensitive, the depiction of addictions don't become as easy to shrug off. Nobody is expecting The Hangover movies to win an Oscar. In fact, one of the few addiction performances to get nominated in recent years was Denzel Washington in Flight. While some could argue that the Academy doesn't like themselves some funny performances, it doesn't take much to realize that Bridesmaids and The Wolf of Wall Street (depending on your take) have been heavily nominated in the past.
Yet what makes Moore special is that he wasn't relying on basic pratfalls to be funny. He had a humanity to it that was astoundingly heartfelt and tragic underneath its broad comedy coat that it wore so proudly. It is the chemistry that few can pull off without looking arrogant. There's too much going on that keeps them from understanding the vulnerability. While Moore may have never returned to the Oscar stage for another nomination, he left his mark with one of the most unique performances of the 80's that was so much more complex and layered than any comedy of its kind usually is. It is the type of performance that you wish that the Academy recognized more often.