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Friday 28 July 2017

Russell, beware the fate of poor 'cuddly dudley'

Russell Brand
Russell Brand

Russell Brand's conquest of Hollywood has been extraordinarily rapid, and within a few brief years he's transformed himself from an unknown stand-up with a funny accent to a major comic film star and half (with Katy Perry) of one of Tinseltown's favourite celebrity couples.

In his latest film, which opened here yesterday, he follows in the tiny footsteps of an illustrious English predecessor, and therein lies a salutary tale. Arthur, in which Russell plays a feckless millionaire who falls in love with a penniless waif, is actually a remake of a hugely successful 1980 film that made Dudley Moore an even bigger star than Brand currently is.

In the aftermath of the original Arthur, Moore won a Golden Globe and was nominated for an Oscar, and the world seemed to be at his feet. But by the mid-'80s a combination of bad luck and worse choices had all but destroyed his film career, and thereafter he became an increasingly forlorn and peripheral figure.

I'm not suggesting that Brand is bound for a similar fate, but he should remember that Hollywood is a great destroyer of lives, and there are few better examples of this than Moore.

Dudley Moore was in his 40s when he came to Hollywood, and despite an extremely distinguished career in Britain, was totally unknown in America. At just 5ft 2" he was a most unlikely matinee idol, but Moore had talent and charm to burn, and for a brief period in the early 1980s he even became a sort of sex symbol.

All this Hollywood glitz was a long way from Moore's tough wartime childhood.

When he was born in London's Charing Cross Hospital on April 19, 1935, he was underweight and his feet were turned inwards. A series of operations failed to entirely correct this condition, and his left leg would remain almost two inches shorter than his right.

The son of a railway electrician, he was raised in Dagenham, East London, and from an early age faced constant bullying at school because of his size and disability. Instead of fighting, Dudley made his tormentors laugh in order to protect himself.

He was an extraordinarily gifted pianist, and in 1954 he won a music scholarship to Oxford, where he played the organ at cathedral services with the help of a specially made platform boot. More importantly, he also became involved in amateur dramatics while studying at Oxford, and performed with Alan Bennett in the Oxford Revue.

After graduating from university, Dudley toured Europe and America with various jazz bands before forming his own trio. But in 1960 his career took a different direction when Alan Bennett asked him to join him, Jonathan Miller and Peter Cook in a new comic revue they were performing at the Edinburgh Festival.

Beyond the Fringe became a hit show on both the West End and Broadway, and would be a key influence on future satirists like Monty Python. It also led to Moore forming a seminal comic partnership with Cook, which led to a very popular 1960s TV series and the hugely controversial Derek and Clive recordings of the 1970s.

But Cook was a chronic alcoholic with a nasty tendency to pick on Moore when drunk, and in the mid-1970s the pair drifted apart.

Moore arrived in Hollywood by accident. After meeting former child star Tuesday Weld while performing a show with Cook in New York, Moore married her and they moved to California. There Dudley caught the Hollywood craze for psychotherapy, and when he met director Blake Edwards at a group therapy session, the pair instantly hit it off.

At that time Edwards was struggling to put together a new comedy film called 10. He'd been impressed with Moore's cameo opposite Goldie Hawn in Foul Play (1978), and when George Segal walked off the set of 10, Edwards cast Dudley in the part instead.

He excelled as a boozy, middle-aged ladies' man who becomes obsessed with seducing a physically perfect younger woman played by Edwards' then-wife, Bo Derek.

Though no masterpiece, the film was a big hit, and Moore impressed the critics with a surprisingly subtle and touching turn.

He followed it up with an even bigger success in 1980 with Arthur: his memorably graceful drunken stumblings and interaction with his witheringly sarcastic butler (played by John Gielgud) earned him an Oscar nomination and established him as one of the big Hollywood stars of the early 1980s.

He amassed a loyal female following who referred to him as "Cuddly Dudley" and "The Sex Thimble". Moore seemed poised for a glittering movie career, but proved a very poor chooser of roles.

He famously turned down the role in the 1984 rom com Splash that made Tom Hanks a star. When Edwards asked him to take over the role of Inspector Clouseau after Peter Sellers' death, Moore said no, possibly wisely.

But over the years, he also turned down a string of comic roles -- including Trading Places and Beetlejuice -- that might have revived his career.

Instead, between 1980 and 1986, when his star was at its highest, he appeared in a string of dreadful comedies that included Unfaithfully Yours and Lovesick, and culminated in Santa Claus, one of the biggest flops of all time. The last straw came in 1988, when Dudley appeared in a woeful sequel called Arthur 2: On the Rocks, which was savaged by the critics.

As the film roles began to dry up, he retreated to what was then the last chance saloon of television. But a projected sitcom called Daddy's Girl was cancelled after three episodes, and he was reduced to taking bit parts in TV movies and doing voiceovers for animated shows. He kept up his music, however, and remained a hugely popular live performer.

By the mid-'90s, however, even that had become problematic. In 1996 he was given the chance of a career comeback after landing a key role in Barbra Streisand's rather overblown drama, The Mirror Has Two Faces (1996).

But during a fraught production Streisand fired him, apparently because he was clowning around and having trouble remembering his lines.

What Streisand didn't know was that Moore's problems stemmed from the onset of a rare and debilitating disease called supranuclear palsy. The disease, which only affects about one in 100,000 people, leads to a gradual deterioration of the nervous system and mental faculties.

Moore was only 66 when he died of complications from the disease in 2002, and most obituaries decided his foray in Hollywood had been an unwise adventure.

Still, he is remembered for several celebrated screen performances, most particularly Arthur.

And Russell Brand should heed the warning and beware the fickle nature of Hollywood, because his 2011 Arthur re-make isn't a patch on the original.

Arthur was released nationwide yesterday

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