Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Happy 90th Birthday, Betty White

I am guessing that the vast majority of people know that it is Betty White's 90th birthday. The fact has been mentioned on numerous television shows, websites, and even trended on Twitter. As if that was not enough, last night NBC aired a tribute to Betty White for her 90th birthday. While it is hardly rare these days for a celebrity to turn 90, it is rare for one to received such attention on their 90th birthday.

There are some that might credit the attention to Betty White's 90th birthday to the alleged "revitalisation" of her career that came with the famous Snickers commercial that aired during Super Bowl XLIV.  And it cannot be denied that since that commercial Miss White has been very active. She hosted Saturday Night Live on 8 May 2010. Since June 2010 she has starred in her own sitcom on TVLand, Hot in Cleveland. She has guest starred in Community, The Middle, and 30 Rock. Her new show (sort of a take on Candid Camera), Off Their Rockers debuted last night. That having been said, I do not think that the attention to Betty White's birthday is due to any so-called "revitalisation" of her career. The simple fact is that in a career spanning seventy years there really never has been a time when Betty White was not active or popular.

Indeed, to give one an idea of how long Betty White's career actually is, it was only three months after her graduation, in 1939, that she appeared on an experimental Los Angeles television station. Throughout the Forties Miss White appeared on several popular radio shows, including Blondie and The Great Gildersleeve. Towards the end of the decade she appeared in her own radio show, The Betty White Show. In 1949 she made the move to television, co-hosting the local, Los Angeles show Hollywood on Television on KLAC. Her groundbreaking sitcom Life With Elizabeth began as a live, local show on KLAC. It went national in 1953 and ran until 1955.  For the rest of the Fifties Betty White appeared in a talk show and a variety show called The Betty White Show and the sitcom Date with the Angels.

In the Sixties she was perhaps best known as the host of the Tournament of Roses Parade and the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade on NBC. She also appeared on numerous game shows, including What's My Line, Password (on which she met her husband Allen Ludden), To Tell the Truth, and Match Game. She would continue to appear on game shows for the rest of her career, to the point that she would become known as "the First Lady of Game Shows." In 1962 she made her feature film debut in Advise and Consent.  The Seventies would see Betty White play Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore as well as appear in her own short lived sitcom, The Betty White Show.  She guest starred on shows from The Carol Burnett Show to Ellery Queen.

The Eighties would see Miss White appear in the sitcom Mama's Family (a spinoff of the "Eunice" skits on The Carol Burnett Show). She played Rose Nylund on the classic sitcom The Golden Girls. She guest starred on shows ranging from Who's the Boss to the soap opera Santa Barbara. The Nineties would not see Betty White slow down. Aside from continuing to play Rose on The Golden Girls, she appeared on such shows as Bob and Diagnosis Murder. She was regular on yet another series, Maybe This Time. She also appeared in the film Hard Rain. This brings us up to the Naughts, where we can see that Miss White's career was in no need of being "revitalised." Even before her famous Snickers commercial, Betty White was a regular on the shows Ladies Man, Boston Legal, and The Bold and the Beautiful. She guest starred on shows ranging from Malcolm in the Middle to That 70's Show to Everwood. She appeared in such movies as Bringing Down the House (2003) and The Proposal (2009). Mind you, all of this was before 2010.

How then was Miss White's career revitalised by that Snicker's commercial 2010? I submit that her career was not revitalised because it needed no revitalisation. As seen from above, Betty White was a very busy lady in the Naughts. In fact, one would be hard pressed to find a decade since the Forties that she wasn't busy!

Of course, Betty White would not be so busy if she was not so popular, so it would seem that she is one of those very few performers who has been popular for her entire career. While there is no doubt that much of this is due to her extreme talent, I think much of it may also rest with Betty White herself. It is true that throughout her career Miss White has played some very dramatically different characters, from the wholesome but mischievous Elizabeth to the man hungry Sue Ann to the clueless Rose to the plain spoken Elka. On the surface these characters might seem very different (especially Sue Ann and Rose), but I think at their core is what might be the true Betty White. In each episode of Life with Elizabeth, Elizabeth would get she and her husband Alvin (Del Moore) into numerous predicaments. At the end of each episode her husband Alvin would announce that he was leaving her, at which point announcer Jack Narz would ask, "Elizabeth, aren't you ashamed?" Elizabeth would then slowly nod her head while a grin slowly came across her face, showing that she thought the mischief had been worth it.

It is that sense of mischief and fun that I think is at the centre of Betty White as both a person and an actress, and it has shown through in every character she has played and even in her numerous talk show and game show appearances. As a young woman Betty White was still the pretty woman who had never quite lost her girlish sense of  fun. In her middle years she was always everyone's favourite aunt, the one who would joke and play games with you. As an older lady she is the grandmother who kids you, pulls pranks on you, and has a good time. I think the reason that Betty White has always been busy and always been popular is that she has such a sense of fun that everyone loves her. Even in the worst of moods it is impossible not to see Betty White and not be cheered up. Betty White simply enjoys life so much that it becomes contagious.

I rather suspect, then, that even had Miss White never made that Snickers commercial we would still see the outpouring of birthday wishes that we have seen this day. Betty White has been called a national treasure and I don't think that is any exaggeration. For seven decades she has brought laughter and happiness to a country often in need of it. One of the first television pioneers, she was also one of the very best. Betty White is the one star from the Golden Age of Television whose career has never faltered, whose career has never slowed down. Indeed, I rather suspect all of us are hoping that she is still around ten years from now so we can wish her "Happy 100th birthday!"

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