Sunday, July 27, 2008

Thank You For Being A Friend - An Obituary

The world of showbusiness, indeed the world of people, lost a giant last week, when Estelle Getty, beloved star of The Golden Girls, passed away at the age of 84.

It's hard to put into words the influence that Estelle had on me and my career. I never met her, and yet I feel that she has, in a way, been with me for many years. I think she was a kind woman, a gentle woman, with an eternal twinkle in her eye and always ready and willing to offer advice and comfort in times of trouble. "E-Get", as her friends may have liked to call her, was the grandmother we all wished we had, instead of the demented alcoholic we were actually burdened with.

Estelle Getty first came to prominence, of course, in the pivotal role of "middle-aged woman" in Tootsie, stealing every scene she was in (one). But this was merely a tasty prelude to her searing portrayal of Claire Prince Timkin in 1987's hit romantic comedy/social satire Mannequin, where, in the words of Leonard Maltin, she "blew Kim Cattrall off the screen" with a performance that was by turns tender, uproarious and erotic, the sizzling sexual electricity between Estelle and Steve Vinovich as BJ Wert making the movie a true tour de force (Vinovich, like Estelle, would make his mark in situation comedy, reducing millions to tears with his role as Sandy Duncan's ex-husband in Valerie's Family.

No doubt it was the versatility and indefinable animal magnetism she showed in Mannequin that had won her the role of Sophia Petrillo in The Golden Girls, a role which began by defining Estelle, and ended up defining America in the 1980s.

Sophia was a representation of the American Dream; an elderly, incontinent immigrant with ties to organised crime, she straddled the divide between the old world, represented by the Golden Girls, and the new, represented by Dorothy's ne'er-do-well musician son Michael. With exquisite comic timing coupled with a flair for pathos, Estelle breathed vivid life into the tiny, sarcastic, dirty-minded Sicilian grandmother, and we laughed, cried and cheered along with her as she exposed the harsh realities of living in the same house as a slut, a moron and a gigantic, sexually unappealing daughter. We could relate.

For me, The Golden Girls opened up a whole new world that I hadn't imagined existed. Having spent my childhood thinking comedy began and ended with Allo Allo and It Ain't Half Hot Mum, I hadn't realised that comedy could be different - it could be intelligent and daring and avant-garde. You could make jokes about oestrogen and trading your eldest daughter for a donkey, you could racially abuse Scandinavians and have sex with Jack Gilford, and if you gave it enough chutzpah, you could pull it off. I've never forgotten these lessons - they permeate all of my work in one way or another.

And that's why I'm still a little bit teary that Estelle has left us. But though she's gone, she's living on within us all, and we will remember her as she was: wise...








and psychotic...


All things to all men, Estelle, we will never forget you.

There is an extra serve of cheesecake in Heaven tonight.


squib said...

I was was a bit astonished about this one, having assumed that she'd died 20 years ago

alliewonder said...

She was still in Golden Palace 20yrs ago, wasn't she?

Beautiful tribute, Ben. Loved the cheesecake reference.

TheHays said...

Holy Mackerel... someone else remembers the train wreck that was "The Golden Palace."

Ah... fondly remembered for being Don Cheadle's break-out role... and Cheech Marin's.... well I don't know what it was for him, other than "short"