How Batman Was Changed By Oscar-Winning Film
Today, we take a look at how a surprising blockbuster comedy film from the early 1980s ultimately changed Batman forever.
This is Foggy Ruins of Time, a feature that provides the cultural context behind certain comic book characters / behaviors. You know, the kind of topical references that have faded into the “misty ruins of time.” Namely, twenty years from now a high school student watching episodes of “Seinfeld” will likely miss much of the then topical pop culture humor (like the very specific references in “The Understudy” to the Nancy Kerrigan / Tonya scandal. Harding).
I recently wrote about how a fun thing over the years is how often a major change will happen in a comic and we’ll all accept it like it’s always like that. This is a rarity, of course, because A. people very much like to complain about virtually any change, let alone major changes, and B. comic book changes will almost always revert to the status quo over time, so you have to really stand out being a change that will simply be adopted as part of the comic book status quo. One of those changes I mentioned at the time (among Dick Grayson’s track record of becoming Nightwing and Daredevil) was Frank Miller’s overhaul of Batman and Alfred Pennyworth’s relationship and his origin came from an unusual place. .
JOHN GIELGUD WAS REDISCOVERED BY A NEW AUDIENCE IN THE 1980s
One of the most acclaimed Shakespearean actors of the 20th century was Sir John Gielgud. He was a contemporary (and artistic rival) of Sir Laurence Olivier and the two almost became Shakespeare’s symbols in the 20th century on stage. The difference between the two, however, was that Olivier also became a movie star, something Gielgud mostly missed. Moreover, while Shakespeare never ceased to be popular, after the 1950s more modern plays became a bigger affair in England and the United States and while Gielgud was still acclaimed (he has knighted in 1953), it was beginning to become a kind of of an act of novelty. He could always do Shakespeare better than anyone, but finding projects that matched his skills was difficult, especially because, as stated, he never really broke out as a movie actor (while he obviously worked, sure).
Oddly enough, it was when he got older that other movie roles started to open up for him. Not lead roles, of course, but at least they were roles and in 1981 he was cast as the acerbic butler of Dudley Moore’s eccentric socialite in the hit film Surprise, Arthur (about a fickle British alcoholic who is on the verge of inheriting his family’s fortune when he falls in love with a working-class New York waitress). Gielgud’s Hobson brilliantly hesitated between being sarcastic and feeding …
The film was not only a commercial success, but Gielgud went on to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor (the film was also known for its Christopher Cross soundtrack, as Cross won the Oscar for Best Original Song. for “Arthur’s Theme,” which he performed for the film and co-wrote with Burt Bacharach, Carole Bayer Sager and Peter Allen. In 1981, Cross won the Grammy for Best Album, Best Record, Best Song and for Best New Artist. A year later he won an Oscar for “Arthur’s Theme.” It’s a hell of a way to start a career, eh?). He was suddenly in great demand again, as a whole new generation “discovered” him for the first time. In 1985, Gielgud reflected on the change in his career: “This film ‘rediscovered’ me once again. Now I am offered more work than I can handle. And it looks like there is more to come.
One of these later projects won an Emmy at Gielgud in 1991, making him one of the first actors to complete an EGOT (he had won a Grammy for a distribution album and he had won several Tonys over the years. ).
So what does this have to do with Batman?
ALFRED GETS A NEW PERSONALITY
Alfred had been regularly present in the Batman titles for decades, but it’s only Frank Miller in the The return of the dark knight (Miller worked with inker Klaus Janson and colorist Lynn Varley on the project) that it was established in the comics that Alfred was already Wayne’s butler when Bruce Wayne was a child and therefore was now a surrogate father figure for young Bruce and of course he was now sarcastic. Essentially, Miller just took Hobson’s character from Arthur and just made Alfred Pennyworth …
This sassy / sarcastic new version of Alfred was quite unusual, but it worked really well …
Shortly after that, Miller was brought in to make the new Batman origin as a result of Crisis on Infinite Earths and he really leaned into this new take on Alfred as the Butler took on a bigger role in setting up Batman’s origin in Batman: Year One (by Miller, David Mazzucchelli, and Richmond Lewis) and the dialogue. Hobson-style fun was excellent. .
Like Arthur / Hobson, the sarcasm clearly hid a genuine love and concern for the surrogate son …
and so a new approach was solidified and soon copied by everyone …
It’s now hard to imagine Alfred Pennyworth being anything other than Bruce Wayne / Batman’s surrogate father, helping him out as he makes fun jokes and yet that wasn’t Alfred’s setup at all. before Miller and Miller are clearly working from the plan left for him with Hobson in Arthur.
Really, it’s pretty cool to see how such big changes to the characters EVERYBODY embrace (I did a recent poll asking which Batman supporting character or villain would be missed the most if they suddenly disappeared for five years). and Alfred easily won the poll) and it all comes down to how much everyone loved Gielgud as Hobson (silly romantic comedies rarely win Oscars).
If anyone else has any suggestions for Foggy Ruins of Time, feel free to email me at [email protected]
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