Culture Trips

Lucille Bluth was the role Jessica Walter was born to play | Television

Jessica Walter racked up a reported 161 film and TV credits over her 70-year acting career. If that number had only been 160, she would have still been the best sort of actor: a safe pair of hands who gets consistent work shoring up individual episodes of long-running shows. The spectrum of series that Walter appeared in over the years was impressive: Flipper, Columbo, Hawaii Five-O, Quincy, Knot’s Landing, Magnum, and Law and Order are just a few. She would pop in for a single episode, class it up a little and leave.

However, she will be remembered for one show above all. As Lucille Bluth in Arrested Development, Walter landed the role she was born to play: a beautifully written, brilliantly wicked character that she elevated to icon status.

Arrested Development was nothing less than a star-making machine. Almost every person involved in the series has gone on to new heights. It made movie stars out of Jason Bateman, Will Arnett, Michael Cera and David Cross, and launched the career of Alia Shawkat, now leading the cult comedy Search Party. Even the show’s longtime directors, the Russo Brothers, ended up making the biggest film of all time.

Yet Lucille was, arguably, the heart of the show. Even more so than Bateman’s Michael, the everyman caught in the middle of his awful warring relatives, Lucille held things together. A parental figure who was always present, consistent and fully in charge. Whenever any of her adult children looked as if they might be edging for the door, she would deploy an arsenal of psychological tactics – bullying, guilt-tripping, reverse psychology, flattery – to keep them in place. There’s no question that Lucille Bluth is a staggeringly bad parent. But you can’t deny that she knows her children well. She smothers Buster (“He’s become too much of a big shot to brush mother’s hair”). She attacks Lindsay with barely veiled criticisms about her weight (“You want your belt to buckle, not your chair”). She “doesn’t care” for Gob. She knows exactly which buttons to push to do the most damage, which at least means she is observant. Lucille is why the Bluths are the Bluths. There would be no Arrested Development without her.

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.

Toxic … with Jeffrey Tambor in Arrested Development.
Toxic … with Jeffrey Tambor in Arrested Development. Photograph: 20th Century Fox Television/Kobal/Rex/Shutterstock

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 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’s work on Arrested Development is now somewhat coloured by an excruciating New York Times interview from 2018 in which, prompted by the growing accusations about co-star Jeffrey Tambor, she detailed an incident where she alleged that he screamed at her on set. On hearing this, her co-stars disagreed and talked over her as much as they could on record, while she sat there crying. The final series of Arrested Development was easily the worst, but hearing about the apparently toxic work environment made it even harder to watch.

Nevertheless, the character of Lucille Bluth was above such ugly disputes. She was the classic sitcom monster: drunk, overdressed and winking in the least natural way a human has ever winked. We were lucky to have her.

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