What Made Lucille Bluth So Funny

In a long career that included Arrested Development, Jessica Walter, who’s now dead at 80, showed how playing lovably hateable was an art form.

The actor Jessica Walter in 2017.
Jason LaVeris / FilmMagic / Getty

Arrested Development, the cult-beloved sitcom that debuted on Fox in 2003, was a joke-dense, fastidiously written, pun-packed satire of a poisonously entitled family. But wordplay alone was not what made Lucille Bluth, the matriarch of the clan, one of the funniest TV characters of all time. The actor Jessica Walter, who died on Wednesday at the age of 80, gets credit for that. Her character’s hilarity arose from the path that her arched eyebrow traversed as Lucille shut the door on one of her sons. It was in the jerk of her limbs as she spilled a martini. It was in the disinterested cheer of her voice when she called the family of a former housekeeper to ask if she was still alive (“… no?”), and in the demonic tenor of her shriek as she rejected a smudged wine glass.

Walter was 61 when she first appeared on Arrested Development, Mitchell Hurwitz’s chronicle of wealthy white obliviousness in suburban California. Her career highlights, to that point, had happened decades earlier. In films, she played a starry-eyed college grad (in Sidney Lumet’s 1966 drama The Group), a race-car driver’s unhappy wife (in the 1966 John Frankenheimer film Grand Prix), and a terrifying stalker (in Clint Eastwood’s 1971 thriller Play Misty for Me). Working in TV, she won an Emmy for the title role on the 1974 cop drama Amy Prentiss, and was also nominated in 1977 for The Streets of San Francisco and in 1980 for Trapper John, M.D. Roles in theater kept her busy over the decades, during which she resided in her hometown of New York City and raised one daughter.

Yet Arrested Development’s Lucille, the countess of the hapless and vain Bluth family, would become Walter’s signature gig. The physicality of Walter’s performance, combined with the concision of Lucille’s cruelties toward relatives and service workers, proved to be catnip for the then-new genres of the GIF and the YouTube compilation. But what’s timeless is the way she brought a whisper of soulfulness to an ancient stock character—the ice queen, the mean old lady, or, most plainly, the bitch. She’d played such characters before, and she’d play them again, and she’d always do so with oddly uplifting vigor and joy.

Sexism shapes the cultural concept of the bitch, and Arrested Development—a show about deeply insensitive people—did not always recognize the line between mocking prejudices and amplifying them. With Lucille, viewers were invited to laugh at a type of motherly callousness that is rarely treated as remarkable in dads. Yet in the confrontational rasp of her voice, in the suspiciousness of her glares, and in the way the range of negative emotions she let herself show never seemed to include sadness, Walter implied a tragic—and ordinary—backstory. A lifetime of objectification and heartbreak (her husband, George Sr., is a womanizer who gives money more freely than love) lay behind every killer glance and manipulative comment. High society, vodka, and the micromanagement of her youngest son, Buster, commanded her attention in the place of a functional home environment.

If Walter’s portrayal of Lucille hinted at the way mistreatment perpetuates itself, so did the situation behind the scenes of Arrested Development. In 2017, Jeffrey Tambor, who played George Sr. on the show, faced accusations of sexual harassment on the set of another series, Transparent. In the course of denying those accusations, he admitted to verbally attacking colleagues over the years, including Walter. During a New York Times interview with the cast of Arrested Development, various actors downplayed and spun excuses for Tambor’s behavior, but Walter broke with the consensus. She said—with Tambor sitting right there—that the way he yelled at her on set was worse than anything she’d experienced in 60 years of show business. In an audio clip, you can hear Walter’s distinctive voice crack and strain as she extends forgiveness to Tambor without minimizing the harm he caused. It’s not a Lucille moment at all.

Indeed: Off-screen, Walter repeatedly insisted, she was not like the women she tended to portray. But, speaking with The A.V. Club in 2012, she did acknowledge an affinity for “characters you love to hate” and “mothers from hell.” For example, the role of Malory on the comedy Archer, which debuted in 2009, was essentially Lucille Bluth reborn—wicked, wounded—as a cartoon spymaster. Walter made these women fascinating simply by giving them what no one else would: empathy. “Nobody’s that one-color evil,” she told The A.V. Club. “There’s lots of levels to why they became that way. … You know, if there’s no desperation, there’s no comedy. What are they desperate to have? What do they long for?”

You can see that thinking at work in Play Misty for Me, Clint Eastwood’s directorial debut. The killer groupie character, Evelyn, isn’t exactly written as a complex figure, but as Walter vests megatons of energy into jarring emotional turns, a sense of tragedy emerges. This villain, whatever else she is, is absolutely, believably alive. Early in the film, when Evelyn hasn’t yet revealed her viciousness, Eastwood’s character tells her, “You’re a very nice girl.” Evelyn replies, “But who needs nice girls?” Walter smiles and raises her eyebrows—those eyebrows—as she says this. But a second later, her facial expression shifts into something more ambiguous and searching. She’s showing the audience, as Walter so often did, that the devil really does live in the details.