Monday, June 3, 2013

TV Quote of the Day (‘All in the Family,’ With Jean Stapleton at Her Best)

Edith Bunker (played by Jean Stapleton): (Edith has exhausted every possible escape, and the rapist is unzipping her dress.) “Ohhh, there's something burning, in the kitchen.”

Lambert (played by David Dukes): (frustrated by her stalling) “What is it?”

Edith: “I-it's in the kitchen.”

Lambert: (fed up, but relenting) “All right, all right, come on come on come on.”

Edith: “There's something burning, in the kitchen.”
(They come in the kitchen, which is filled with smoke. She screams, completely hysterical.)

Edith: “Ohhh, there's a fire! FIRE! Ohhhh, my cake! My ca-cake, it's burnin'!”

Lambert: “Lady, get rid of it. Get rid of it!”

Edith (She shoves the hot smoldering cake directly in the rapist's face, throws open the door, and punches him in the stomach.) “GET OUT! GET OUT!” (She throws him out the back door, slams it, then runs through the house out the front door shrieking while the audience applauds wildly.)--All in the Family, “Edith's 50th Birthday: Part 1,” Season 8, Episode 4, original air date October 16, 1977, written by Bob Schiller and Bob Weiskopf, directed by Paul Bogart

The picture I used for this post is, in a sense, ambiguous. It shows Jean Stapleton as Edith Bunker in one of her trademark expressions: consternation. That look could involve many things, including what to tell a husband with nowhere near as much thoughtfulness as this simple soul possessed.

But in the episode from which the above quote is taken, this look was even more crucial than usual. You expect it to be something along the lines of the usual comic confusion I outlined above. Instead, it anchors, then pivots the audience in one of the most daring, disturbing half hours in the entire 200-episode run in one of television’s most important series, as Edith--good, innocent Edith--realizes that the man she let in the door is nothing like he pretended to be, and she tries to figure how to get out of this.

The news of Jean Stapleton’s death has unleashed an outpouring of affection for the actress, as well as the recognition that her character, Archie’s “dingbat” wife Edith, was, in a real sense, the great beating heart of TV’s rules-breaking sitcom of the Seventies. Longtime watchers of the show could pick out different ways that Stapleton brought Edith to life—that screech while singing, the run-hop from the kitchen to Archie’s favorite chair with his beer, the slowly dawning recognition on her face of something unusual.

But few episodes brought all of Stapleton’s skills together the way this one of Edith’s terrifying encounter with a rapist did. It called on her to display delight at the prospect of her birthday, then confusion, then terror (and—all the more dangerous at this point—evoking humor that allowed the audience to catch its breath before the tension spiraled again)—then, in the course of this particular half minute, frustration, annoyance, hysteria and desperate courage. And it would not have played out half so well if Stapleton hadn’t built up a reservoir of eight seasons of good will with the audience.

I tried never to miss an episode during the original run of All in the Family. Watching reruns now on cable, it’s easy to see how particular episodes, even fashions, date the show in a way that, for instance, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, its great contemporary, usually does not. (Political references, issues of the week, even Gloria's different hair and clothes choices.) Even so, the show can still be enjoyed immensely because of the interplay of the talented, Emmy-winning quartet—Stapleton, Carroll O’Connor, Sally Struthers and Rob Reiner--who embodied the American family under siege.

Edith Bunker might have been uneducated, but, especially as the series went along, she was anything but simple. Like Judy Holliday, Jean Stapleton was a supremely intelligent woman who turned a ditz totally unlike herself into a wildly funny, but warm and recognizably human, person. The character she created might not have been the ideal, middle-class, hair-never-out-of-place suburban mothers out Father Knows Best, Leave It to Beaver, or The Donna Reed Show, but she was a good deal more real, and someone with elements that many of us could recognize in our own lives.

In her ninth season of playing Edith, with Rob Reiner and Sally Struthers having departed the show, Stapleton asked to be written out of the series. In the last episode while her character is still alive, but now unexpectedly, seriously ill, Archie tells his wife, “Without you, I’m nothing.” And so, with Stapleton's departure, in a real sense, went one of the great pioneering sitcoms.

Rest in peace, Ms. Stapleton. Job well done.

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