Bea Arthur-Inspired Classics Week

I’m putting a unique spin on classics week here at the Film School Blog, so indulge me and travel down the wormhole with me for a moment. I awoke last Thursday morning to a hot cup of coffee and a Facebook post that asked, “Why is Bea Arthur blowing up social media?” An odd occurrence indeed and it didn’t take long to find out why. Apparently a painting of an artist’s rendering of Bea Arthur sans clothing recently sold for $1.9 million (you can check out the artwork here if you dare). What the heck does this have to do with cinema, and more importantly classics week? Well, nearly 20 years ago a little known film actually involved said artwork of naked Bea Arthur as part of its narrative.

Like most of America, I missed “Airheads” when it was released in theaters in 1994. Later introduced to the film via VHS, the film has gained traction as somewhat of a cult classic in the past two decades. In addition to a surprisingly good cast, the film offers a glimpse into early Adam Sandler and Chris Farley shtick that would be a staple of their films throughout the 1990s. Like the serious hard rock the film champions, “Airheads” doesn’t mess around with much of an exposition and gets right to the meat of the narrative.

Los Angeles rocker Chazz Darvey (Brendan Fraser, “The Mummy” series) and his band mates are hoping for their big break that leads to a record deal. Tired of waiting to get noticed, they sneak into a local rock station with the hopes of getting their single played on the air. When the band is denied, they turn to plan B — plastic guns from the toy store — to hold the station hostage until their single gets played. What happens as a result is far from what they could have ever imagined, and with the help of some very unlikely people.

There is a strange endearing quality to “Airheads” thanks to the likeable cast, simple storyline and overall feel-good nature of the film. Subplots include the radio station changing formats (“Rebel radio’s going soft?”), the mixing of music and the corporate world, and the party that develops outside the station. Then of course there are those Bea Arthur naked pictures. The band makes an outrageous list of hostage demands with hopes of later using the insanity defense. Demands include a football helmet filled with cottage cheese, a giant baby bottle, and naked pictures of Bea Arthur … which we later find out exist, at least within the diegesis of the film, when record exec Jimmie Wing (Judd Nelson, “The Breakfast Club”) notes, “Bea Arthur, nice.”

For a mid-90s comedy that flies under the radar, “Airheads” boasts a ridiculously talented cast that features Steve Buscemi and Joe Mantegna. Mantegna is brilliant as rock & roll DJ Ian. Though he’s not a musician, Ian represents everything that rock & roll stands for and ends up being more of a catalyst for the band’s efforts than their faux guns. Buscemi manages to bring a bit of depth to Rex’s character with subtle moments that show just how much he worships the band’s leader, Chazz. Michael Richards (TV’s “Seinfeld”) is hilarious as a roving inside man that manages to get into all sorts of predicaments despite the band not knowing he’s there. David Arquette, Michael McKean and Ernie Hudson help fill out a diverse cast.

“Airheads” is also a launching point for the film careers of Adam Sandler and Chris Farley. Both SNL alums were at this point a year away from lead roles, and you can clearly see shades of future characters in this film. Pieces of Sandler’s character Pip seep into his later films, especially “Billy Madison” and “Happy Gilmore.” The film is also a precursor to some familiar Farley tropes. It served as a perfect training ground for both young actors who would prove they were ready to become leading men in the comedy genre.

Despite setting the stage for Sandler and Farley films of the ‘90s, “Airheads” is a film that I like to classify as a lingering ‘80s comedy that seems four or five years past its time. The ‘80s throwback is directed by Michael Lehmann, known for other quirky projects in both film (“Heathers” and “Hudson Hawk”) and television (“Californication” and “Bored to Death”). Under Lehmann’s direction the talented cast bring a simple yet vibrant script to life and makes this film a must-see cult classic … naked Bea Arthur jokes and all.

Travis Yates