Remembering Betty White: NPR
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Something horrible is happening to pop culture preying on smart, quick-witted people when they have the audacity to grow old beyond an unspecified point. This seems especially true for women. There is a reason people still quote the speech in First Women’s Club when the character played by Goldie Hawn says that Hollywood recognizes three life stages for actresses: “baby, attorney and Driving Miss Daisy. “
Betty White, who passed away just weeks away from her 100th birthday on Friday, raised her profile in the 1960s, at a cultural time when you could be a famous and wonderful guest. A talk show guest or, in White’s case, a game show guest. Take the old show Matching game, where contestants would try to match the answers with those offered by six celebrities. Celebrities filled certain niches: some were bawdy, some were dumb, some were young and cool, some were jaded, some were… often drunk. (Apparently. Apparently.)
White was one of those sharp as a point. When it really mattered, when contestants had to face a celebrity to make a lot of money, they could choose which celebrity to try to match in a single instant. And a lot of times, if they really wanted to win, they would choose Betty White.
It happens in the clip above, towards the end. The participant has a chance to win $ 5,000. He can try to match the answers with Joe Flynn, Brett Somers, Charles Nelson Reilly, Linda Henning, Richard Dawson or Betty White. Several of them are Matching game heavy hitters, but he chooses white. (Those in the know know: after a certain point, most people chose Dawson or White.)
The candidate receives the phrase “penny [blank]. “To win he has to choose the same second word as her. After taking a moment to think, he chooses’ penny ante.” Host Gene Rayburn turns to Betty White. Penny candy ”and“ penny arcade, ” she reveals that she too invented “penny ante”.
she was fair Great on game shows.
It wasn’t just because she had a strange ability to know that you were going to say “penny ante.” This is because she not only had this voluptuous mind, this sense that she was always thinking about a dirty joke whether she says it or not, but also reassuring behavior that tells you it was there – you were in good hands if you made her your partner in the final challenge.
That’s not to say White should be remembered primarily as a guest on a game show. She was, of course, a wonderful comedic actress who found great success in two diametrically opposed sitcom roles: the voracious sexpot Sue Ann on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and the innocent and often confused Rose on Golden girls. The fact that her manners as Sue Ann had always been so gleefully carnal and so sharp was part of the reason it was so funny to people when she appeared as Rose. Here she is as Sue Ann auditions for a new segment titled “News from a Woman’s Point of View”.
Sue Ann’s relentless good humor, especially next to how she tells Ted Baxter to “put a sock in”, is a send off of the madness to have such a thing as “News from the point of view of a woman “, because here what seems to mean to interpret a mudslide through the prism of the laundry.
To post-Daddy’s Girls, and especially after a renewed interest in his career which accelerated when there was a campaign (ultimately successful!) Saturday Night Live, there was a kind of flattening of Betty White’s appreciation, until it seemed to coagulate around a central, regrettable, and recurring idea about women over 80, let’s say: that ‘she was adorable.
Maybe it’s not ‘baby, district attorney and Driving Miss Daisy. “Maybe it’s” baby, district attorney, Driving Miss Daisy and mascot. ”
Because while White received a lot of attention in his’ 90s – far more than most actors, even if they live that long – it seemed to me largely reductive, almost infantilizing. The same impertinence she had when she was younger was received like a stunt, as if it was inherently funny to hear old women talking about sex, talking about lust, making dirty jokes. Not even in the same way as when Sue Ann spoke about sex on The Mary Tyler Moore Show or Blanche, Sue Ann’s spiritual sister, spoke about sex on Golden girls.
It was patronizing at times: the way we appreciate older women is often to denigrate them, to turn them into fluffy little fluff – and that’s unfair to them. When White appeared in the “Delicious Dish” skit on Saturday Night Live, she didn’t do this as a picky old lady who was made to swear. She was doing sex comedy even before some of the cast members were born. She controlled these jokes as well as any other host.
Part of the reason I love one of the clips of her fooling around with Ryan Reynolds circulating today is that he’s sending this precise idea. Reynolds says she looks like an “adorable, sweet old lady,” but she isn’t. The joke of the clip is that she uses the fact that everyone thinks she’s adorable to be, in secret, demanding and mean. Now the clip is a joke, it’s fiction, and you could definitely argue that all it does is use the gag that she’s not so adorable to emphasize that – surprise! – She is. But the idea that a lot of people are using the idea of the “adorable, sweet old lady” to drain the creative energy of their impressions of people like Betty White is real.
White was a star. It was a beautiful young woman who was playing Password with all her intelligence and wit, so charming and skillfully that the host, Allen Ludden, married her. She was a very funny actress who could be an innocent or a ball of lust, who could deliver a cue like a syrupy, sweet cocktail that was spiced with enough hot sauce to make you cry. She loved animals, loved her husband, loved to work (and was a regular at Hot in Cleveland in his 90s).
For people whose knowledge of White only came in her “spicy grandma” phase (and that’s nothing against a spicy grandma!), The full range of her gifts might give way to a certain sense of her as more national treasure than legendary actor, more loved than brilliantly talented. But she had the goods from the start: on game shows and talk shows, alongside other TV legends, in movies, and sitting around a table with three other actresses – all gone now – telling them stories about St. Olaf, Minn.
Don’t be fooled by the “protect Betty White at all costs” case. She earned this affection by being excellent at her job – to her works, all of them – for decades and decades, sending out generations of female stereotypes: the happy housewife, the pie-sweet woman, the innocent Midwestern, the poor little old lady who just wants to be protected from Ryan Reynolds. She was too formidable to be something as harmless as “cute” or “adorable”. She was too funny to be something as passive as a cultural mascot or a protected resource. It was Betty White, who lived to be almost 100 years old and was making new projects this week again.
Perhaps a lesson is this: never underestimate a woman who is practically unbeatable at games of wit and intellect. She will go and go, work and work until she is fit and ready to rest.