Sometimes people look at me funny when I proclaim my love for the NBC sitcom "The Golden Girls." But of all TV shows "Golden Girls" may have done the best job of taking an unlikely scenario and turning it into something truly special. That's because it took subject matter that no other show would ever touch - four women basically in their twilight years living together in a house in Florida - and infused it with vivid characters, incisive humor, and sometimes shockingly bold dialog. Of course none of it would have worked if the four main characters had been played by bland or timid actresses. As it happened, the show's producers assembled one of the strongest ensemble casts to ever grace the small screen. Between the four of them, Bea Arthur, Betty White, Rue McClanahan and Estelle Getty were nominated for 22 Emmys just for their work on this series.
Lifetime (home of endless syndicated "Golden Girls" reruns) covered each actress in their "Intimate Portrait" series and have compiled the four episodes on one DVD. For the fan (who may be collecting the full season DVD sets that have been released over the last few years) this insight into the show's stars could be valuable. These aren't some wan starlets who were cast based on their hair and legs. Each actress brings a lifetime of personal and professional experience to these roles and it shows. Lifetime does a nice job of exploring each woman's history. Each episode runs roughly 42 minutes and contains lots of interviews with the "Golden Girls" and their families and friends, plus lots of great archival photos and videos from their lives and past work.
Bea Arthur's episode does a nice job of traveling through her early acting career in New York theater, where she was told by legendary diva Tallulah Bankhead that she didn't have the bone structure for stardom. Her anger at her idol's dismissive comment seems to have informed her quest for quality roles and audience approval. The program discusses the toll working took on her family and her marriage and how moving to California to star in the "All in the Family" spin-off "Maude" really strained her personal life. But viewers will be interested in the clips from "Maude", a groundbreaking show that featured Arthur's middle-aged character terminating an unexpected pregnancy even before abortion was made legal nationally. It's interesting to think that a plotline like that would probably never make it to primetime today, even though television is supposed to be so much more open now.
The final segments show Arthur eventually returning to her first love, musical theater, in a way that might make Bankhead pause. She uses her considerable stage presence and rich voice to develop a show based around songs that tell the story of her life. Arthur is a gregarious interview subject, speaking plainly about her life and her work (at one point she says "the only things I haven't done are rodeo and porno.") and her episode is lively and interesting.
Betty White's episode (narrated by Alex Trebec) spends a lot of time on the facets of her life that she's best known for: Her pioneering role in the history of television and her animal rights work. White, who appeared in an experimental television program as a high school student in 1940, is living television royalty. She was one of the first female producers and she won her first Emmy in 1951. Her incredible staying power in television is due to her ability to connect with viewers on the most basic level, a talent clearly visible in clips from her first starring show (1952's "Life With Elizabeth") through the legendary "Mary Tyler Moore Show" and as the naive Rose on "Golden Girls." The Lifetime program does a good job of exploring the history of television through White's career, as well as her personal life, like the death of her long-time husband Allen Ludden and her work on behalf of animals.
Rue McClanahan's episode (narrated by the late John Ritter) concentrates on the most striking aspect of the actress' personal life: Her six marriages and the way she grew and changed over those experiences. While being a new bride might appeal to McClanahan ("She puts on a hell of a wedding," Arthur wryly observes) it took her a few stabs at being married (and time raising a son as a single mother in the fifties) to realize that she needs to meet her own needs and not just be married for its own sake. Like Arthur's real personality differs from her "Golden Girls" role, McClanahan, who costarred on "Maude" with Arthur, seems to have been much less self-confident than her saucy character. But in an interesting interview segment, she describes the moment she learned from her fictional character Blanche, the "sexpot" of the show, who projected confidence even when she didn't always feel it. After a series ups and downs (including a brush with adult respiratory syndrome) McClanahan was diagnosed with breast cancer. While her life hews most closely to the Lifetime rollercoaster, McClanahan is such a terrific personality and interview she never resorts to melodrama or maudlin sentiment.
As Sophia, Dorothy's elderly mother, Estelle Getty played "Golden Girls"' oldest and most experienced character. But Getty was the least experienced show business personality when cast. While the others had all spent decades appearing on legendary television series, Getty had lived in New York and performed off-off-Broadway for many years while holding down a secretarial job. Her break came when Harvey Fierstein cast her as his mother in the inaugural production of "Torch Song Trilogy." The play allowed Getty to leave her day job, brought her a lot of acclaim, and introduced her to a huge gay following, who continued to support her once she joined "The Golden Girls." (And let's face it, Sophia is basically a drag role anyway.) A particularly emotional sequence explores Getty's motherly position with her young gay costars in "Torch Song," including her bringing chicken soup to an ailing friend suffering from then-mysterious AIDS. Getty's own illness, a Parkinsons-like disease that doesn't sound well documented, has prevented her from being too active in recent years.
These episodes are mostly well produced, with some choppy editing (particularly in the Bea Arthur segment). Each episode starts with the disclaimer "This program has been edited for video," although it's not clear what editing has been done. They do run roughly long enough to fill out an hour-long TV episode with commercials, so I suspect the edits have been light. This is a compilation, so there are obviously overlapping segments (the genesis of the "Golden Girls" show is retold four times) and it's possible that a single well-made documentary might be a smoother viewing experience, but overall Lifetime's productions are as interesting as the personalities they profile, and these four ladies are the tops.
The video looks fine. It's full screen and has a bit of a soft look to it. All of the programs are fairly recent (having been produced between 2000 and 2003) but they look like standard TV video.
The Dolby Digital stereo audio is also fine. The voices are clear, which is all you can really ask of a talking-head production like this. Subtitles are available in English and Spanish.
Basically an extended extra for those who have purchased the "Golden Girls" box sets, the Intimate Portrait series spends a good amount of time on each woman and gives a good sense of the life experiences that went into making their characters so interesting. Fans of the show might want to rent the disc or watch them when they come on Lifetime, but real "Golden Girls" afficianados will probably want to own this reasonably priced release.