I’m writing this on November 27th, 2019. It is thirty-seven years to the day since Steve Gordon died. If you are not around my age (fifty-six), and/or a bit of a movie buff then his name is unlikely to ring a bell, but to me he represents the most agonizing instance of “what if?” I’ve ever seen that doesn’t actually involve some pathetic episode from the five and one half decade herniated disc that is my own existence. Mr. Gordon was the writer and director of Arthur, a romantic comedy released in July of 1981. Made on a budget of $7 million, the film struggled commercially at first but eventually found an audience, winding up the fourth biggest box office hit of the year with a domestic gross of $95 million. His previous experience as a writer had been a dozen or so years turning out copy for the advertising world, a play that closed not terribly long after it opened, a variety of episodes for an assortment of sitcoms and the screenplay for The One and Only, a Henry Winkler film directed by Carl Reiner. A resume that while legitimately professional, did not in any way indicate that he was certain to turn out a good film, no less one of singular greatness. I cannot think of a movie that has been able to make me laugh so hard and cry so softly within an hour and forty minutes.
Without spilling too many beans here, Arthur is the story of an alcoholic, ne’er-do-well who must marry his insipid (though inherently decent) girlfriend in order to remain heir to a $750 million fortune. As luck would have it he meets and falls in love with a down on her luck waitress/actress. Even if you haven’t seen it, it’s not terribly difficult to imagine where this story is heading. It must have been a tough sell to studio executives. Generically speaking, who the hell is going to find the above delineated main character sympathetic, no less attractive. While not being blind to the comedy potential of someone who’s biggest miseries in life stem from having too much money, I’d be more apt to see that person as the butt of the joke than the hero of the narrative. In addition, Gordon was able to take what should have been the mawkish secondary tale of the father-son nature of the relationship between Arthur and his butler, Hobson, and deliver an honest, unsentimental accounting of their connection. I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the strength of the performances (John Gielgud as Hobson in particular), but all the thespian magic in the world would have been wasted without Steve Gordon’s perfect writing. Over the passing years I have watched the movie, in part or whole, too many times to keep count. My thoughts tended to settle on envy of one sort or another. Artistically I’d do anything to have produced a piece of work of that caliber. Personally, I can’t help but watch Hobson tell Arthur he’s been a good son, without finding myself wishing I’d had a moment like that with my own father. And for years, that was it.
Over time, I would occasionally wonder how it was that such an obvious talent had seemingly never expressed itself again. In the pre-internet days I just assumed that I had somehow missed whatever it was that came next for Mr. Gordon. Once I had casual access to a computer (later in life for me than most people) I found out about his remarkably untimely demise at the age of forty-four. One question answered but a different train of thought opened. In the roughly eighteen years that have passed since I made that unhappy discovery I have not had even a fleeting glimpse of the film without spending a fair amount of time afterwards thinking about the brutal indifference, if not cruelty, of life. For him to evince a gift like that and then have it all taken away was a crushing loss, not just for the filmmaker and his family, but for anyone who in seeing his work could not help but think of what might be on the horizon. Learning why his output ended where it did, has left me with a permanent sense of longing with respect to his work, enhanced by the paucity of information available concerning his life. Something about his being forgotten has elevated him to an almost mythical status in my mind. Aside from reviews of the movie and boilerplate obituaries there did not appear to be a whole lot to read about his life. Or so I thought.
The most recent time Mr. Gordon crossed my mind, less than a week ago, I looked at the list of references that accompanied his Wikipedia page a bit more closely than I have in the past. To equal parts chagrin and delight I discovered that I’d previously overlooked an article about him in the August 24th, 1981 edition of New York magazine. Written by Cynthia Heimel, it was a warm, if limited look at Mr. Gordon and the perspective he brought to his work. Although not remotely encyclopedic in it’s scope, the piece did help me to create some kind of image of who Gordon might have been. He came across as open, unpretentious and wholly appreciative of his success. In a field of endeavor (show business) full of forced gravitas and inch deep sincerity he presented as an approachable guy, committed to what he was doing without having been foolish enough to let that imbue him with a ludicrous sense of self-importance. All of which, regardless of whether or not it makes any sense, makes it easier for me to believe that he had more to give us. The most convincing part of the article, in that regard, is in the closing lines. Having given a happy accounting of the experience of making Arthur, Gordon responded to Ms. Heimel’s questions concerning what he thought would come next. He said “… I couldn’t even write a letter right now. I’m resting…nothing goes to my head. I’m always insecure… I haven’t even started my next screenplay and already it doesn’t work. I just think I fooled them once”. I don’t have any greater grasp on the unknown than the next guy but when I think of how extraordinary his debut as a director was in light of the humility he displayed as an interviewee I find it hard to believe he was headed towards one and done.
As I finish this I find myself ruminating on Mr. Gordon’s life in a mostly familiar way. The weight of his early death, the simple genius of his work. Nothing new there. Knowing a bit more than I used to, however, he is both more and less in my imagination than he once was. Having a tangible reason to see him as an artist of capacity that was very real, if mournfully unrealized, I feel more comfortable holding on to my perception of him as an arguable position and less as an article of faith. Seeing him this way has had an additional upside for me. If you’re a regular reader of this post you’ve no doubt become aware of my persistent dissatisfaction with a life arc that has left me wondering what exactly I might have accomplished if I hadn’t made so many shaky choices along the way. Getting to know Steve Gordon has allowed me to consider all of that with eyes that are, if not fresh, then at least more widely open than before. It’s not so much a matter of coming to see my past in a positive way, as it is remembering that I am still here, and still have a future to do with as best I can.
The movie is eminently quotable, but there is a line of dialogue from the film that I am sure I will think of differently the next time I see it. While being chauffeured in his limousine in a state of near paralytic inebriation, Arthur, speaking to no specific person, says “don’t you wish you were me? I know I do.” Like roughly 70% of the film, that moment always made me laugh, and I’m sure it will again. I’m sure I will also think that the man who wrote it is gone but I am not. Obligation and offering in a breath.