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With Lucille Bluth, Jessica Walter brought soulfulness to an ancient stock character: the bitch

  • Walter, who died Wednesday at age 80, showed how playing lovably hateable was an art form," says Spencer Kornhaber. "The physicality of Walter’s performance, combined with the concision of Lucille’s cruelties toward relatives and service workers, proved to be catnip for the then-new genres of the GIF and the YouTube compilation," says Kornhaber. "But what’s timeless is the way she brought a whisper of soulfulness to an ancient stock character—the ice queen, the mean old lady, or, most plainly, the bitch. She’d played such characters before, and she’d play them again, and she’d always do so with oddly uplifting vigor and joy. Sexism shapes the cultural concept of the bitch, and Arrested Development—a show about deeply insensitive people—did not always recognize the line between mocking prejudices and amplifying them. With Lucille, viewers were invited to laugh at a type of motherly callousness that is rarely treated as remarkable in dads. Yet in the confrontational rasp of her voice, in the suspiciousness of her glares, and in the way the range of negative emotions she let herself show never seemed to include sadness, Walter implied a tragic—and ordinary—backstory. A lifetime of objectification and heartbreak (her husband, George Sr., is a womanizer who gives money more freely than love) lay behind every killer glance and manipulative comment. High society, vodka, and the micromanagement of her youngest son, Buster, commanded her attention in the place of a functional home environment."


    • Jessica Walter showed what can happen when Hollywood lets women thrive no matter their age: "Jessica Walter had a rare Hollywood career, which spanned over five decades," says Tatiana Tenreyro. "Aside from notable exceptions like Meryl Streep, Judi Dench, and Helen Mirren, women in Hollywood so often 'age out' in middle age, losing the opportunity for meatier work. But Walter, who died on Wednesday at the age of 80, would get her most significant roles over 30 years into her career, showing what can happen when Hollywood lets women have their moment to shine later in life. Walter’s stardom only grew bigger as she grew older. Walter excelled in dramatic roles from the beginning. Her portrayal of the titular character in 1970s police drama Amy Prentiss earned her an Emmy, and she received a Golden Globe nomination for her second feature film, Grand Prix, in 1967. But Walter would become most beloved for her comedic chops. As Lucille Bluth on Arrested Development, the actor transformed into a meme queen and symbol of the out-of-touch 1%, becoming a significant part of millennial humor online. It says a lot that upon the announcement of her death, thousands paid tribute to her by sharing screencaps of her Arrested Development character’s best quotes as the show’s delightfully cold-blooded matriarch. The series has one of the most talented sitcom ensembles, including Alia Shawkat, Michael Cera, Jason Bateman, Will Arnett, Tony Hale, David Cross, Portia de Rossi, Jeffrey Tambor, and Liza freakin’ Minnelli. But most of the show’s biggest moments were Walter’s, with the actors giving their best performances bouncing off her impeccable timing."
    • Walter got a lot of mileage from a pursed lip, an arched brow, a widened eye: "In the earlier seasons, especially, when other characters babble on compulsively, Lucille can be terse — lobbing in some well-timed irony grenade or a 'What the hell is this?' — but she’s always watching and listening (unless she is making a show of not paying attention)," says Robert Lloyd. "The editors often go to her for reaction shots: horror, disgust, fiendish glee. As Lucille, Walter had a way of holding her head so she often seems to be looking to the side, as if she were hiding in plain sight...Although Walter once described herself as 'really a nice, boring person,' there must have been a spark of the imp within her. She embraced the rude, the weird, the mad. It was a short walk from Lucille Bluth to Malory Archer, the self-aggrandizing, sex-driven head of a spy ring and hostile mother of H. Jon Benjamin’s idiot secret agent in FX’s Archer. Together, Arrested Development and Archer positioned in her within modern comedy and set the stage for her late career, including a hilariously profane turn in Julie Klausner and Billie Eichner’s Difficult People and a couple of episodes of Tru TV’s At Home With Amy Sedaris as Amy’s old teacher Mrs. Brittlecrunch, who drops in to cheerily embarrass the host."
    • Lucille Bluth was Moira Rose before Moira: "Lucille is why the Bluths are the Bluths. There would be no Arrested Development without her," says Stuart Heritage. "In the last year or so, a lot of love has been shown for Moira Rose, the similarly eccentric matriarch from Schitt’s Creek. Lucille was Moira before Moira, just as moneyed and out of touch, but with no identifiable soft edges. And yet, it was still possible to identify with her. Look at the blizzard of Lucille memes that sprung into action when it was announced that Walter had died. They all show a woman of a certain age who has simply stopped listening to the rules. She’s drunk. She’s dismissive. She’s knowingly cruel. There’s a freedom to Lucille that I think everyone envies just a little bit. This was her masterstroke. She wasn’t likable, but she was aspirational. Even more impressive was that, when Arrested Development returned in its diminished form on Netflix, Walter became the star. The rest of the cast made a lot of noise about having to slot the reunion around their newly busy Hollywood schedules, but Walter – along with (Alia) Shawkat – seemed to be the only one who wanted to devote herself to the series. It rewarded her in kind. The Netflix episodes are patchy affairs, drowning in complicated plot that only distract from the jokes, but Walter did some incredible work on them. She made Lucille more monstrous than ever, while locating a frequency of performance that makes you feel sorry for her."
    • Walter was more than Lucille Bluth: "She invented her beloved Arrested Development role virtually single-handedly, and her 60-year career is full of similar transformations," says Keith Phipps. "Nobody described what made Jessica Walter’s performance as Arrested Development’s Lucille Bluth so rich and wonderful better than Walter herself. Speaking to the Chicago Tribune in 2019, Walter recalled receiving a pilot script that provided little in the way of detail. 'I think it just said, "matriarch of this family,"' she said. So she filled in the blanks herself. 'I just had a take on it: A mother who loves her children but cannot show it — and who is desperate to keep the lifestyle that she was accustomed to having.' That last element provided Lucille with her motivation, a need to keep up appearances and, more importantly, keep herself in the style to which she’d become accustomed. But it was the way Walter buried an unmistakable sense of love deep — often extremely deep — within the performance that made Lucille memorable. Another actor could have sipped martinis and delivered blistering insults and made it funny. But it was Walter that gave Lucille her withered but still beating heart. Walter had a way of fleshing out potentially thin characters from her start."
    • Looking back at Jessica Walter's other TV roles: Walter's other small-screen work over a 60-year career includes her Emmy-winning performance in Amy Prentiss, 90210, NCIS and Three's Company spinoff Three's a Crowd.
    • Here are 10 times Walter stole the show on Arrested Development

    TOPICS: Jessica Walter, Archer, Arrested Development, Retro TV