It is both quite a coup and a kooky touch to have landed Bea Arthur as the gala diva of ceremonies of the Miami Gay & Lesbian Film Festival. The Tony-winning, Emmy-hoarding, age-defying human rights activist and entertainment dynamo will perform a short version of her acclaimed one-woman show, And Then There's Bea, during the opening-night gala April 22 at the James L. Knight Center.
"I was very honored to have been asked," she said. "It is a very, very important cause. And I had no idea there were so many gay-themed movies."
Her voice on the phone is unmistakable, the raspy Maude groan that introduced a generation of strong women on television, the improbably sexy sound of Auntie Mame's sidekick Vera, an inspiration to a myriad of drag queens. "Don't apologize for calling early," she says. "Everyone goes to bed early and gets up early in Los Angeles. There's nothing to do at night." She's looking forward to staying up late partying in South Beach.
Baby boomers who know and love Bea Arthur actually came into her story somewhere in the middle: her schmatte-blazing turn in Fiddler on the Roof, her martini-soaked Vera Charles in Jerry Herman's immortal Mame, followed on television by Edith's high-class cousin in All in the Family. Then there was Maude. And then, out of nowhere, when perhaps she might have retired, she launched The Golden Girls, one of those rare shows -- like I Love Lucy or The Mary Tyler Moore Show -- that just don't seem to get old. Her memories, the heart and soul of And Then There's Bea, add up to major chapters of entertainment history and more than a few surprises. To take one among many, Arthur starred as the lesbian Inez in the 1948 U.S. premiere of Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit.
"My god, that was almost 50 years ago!" she reminisces about the play that launched a thousand black berets and became a landmark of twentieth-century French theater.
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"Hell is other people, right?" she asks, echoing the play's most famous line. "I'll tell you what hell I remember about that night. I had just gone to Fire Island and was terribly sunburned; then I had to put on this tight little black dress for the show. I was in agony."
She got over it.
To borrow another line from No Exit: "You are -- your life, and nothing else." For Bea Arthur, that's quite a lot.