I was confused at first when Wikipedia informed me that Betty White was a Disney Legend. (That’s an actual award you can receive, and she’s not the first or last person we’ve covered to have gotten it.) I’ll level with you—I couldn’t think of a single Disney thing she’d done. A legend, assuredly; ninety-five-year-old White has been on TV off and on since the ’30s—and that’s not a typo; she got her start on an experimental station in 1939. She hasn’t been in many movies, but being in Advise and Consent counts for a lot. She did radio. In fact, she was one of the first five women nominated for a Best Actress Emmy, back in 1951. And she produced! So that’s a legend, but a Disney Legend? Oh. The Golden Girls was produced by Touchstone.
It may be where I first knew her from, not that I was a particularly devoted viewer. But occasionally, when I wasn’t doing anything better on a Saturday night, I’d watch an episode. I’m pretty sure my mom liked it. Still, when I was going through the letter “M” in the library catalog a while ago, I got into The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and I’m considerably more fond of the Happy Homewrecker—er, Homemaker, Sue Ann Nivens. I mean, I don’t like her, but I’d rather watch her than the dippy Rose Nylund. And I flatly do not understand why IMDb thinks she’s better known for two different versions of Match Game.
Really, part of the issue is that White is a versatile comedic actress, able to do the vapid dimwittery of Rose and the snarky smugness of Sue Ann equally well, and it’s all about which one you prefer when it comes to which you’ll remember her for. And now, she’s doing the snarky old lady routine, as far as I can tell a different archetype than either. (I haven’t actually watched Hot in Cleveland.) I think the internet has latched onto her as the grandmother they’d really like to have.
Though I’ll freely admit that I am often confused by who catches the internet’s attention. You’ll note, for example, that I haven’t done Chuck Norris for this column, and I don’t intend to. I don’t understand the fixation, and I find him personally unpleasant. At least Betty White seems like a neat lady—also the kind of woman who’d find “neat lady” a compliment. The internet is going to be brokenhearted when White dies, but remember that she’s not much younger than Olivia de Havilland and Kirk Douglas. Betty White has undergone three or four career comebacks, long after most people are, well, dead. But she has several stretches of her career where you look at it and say, “Oh, that’s where they thought she was washed up,” and then there’s a different show that she’s an icon in.
I’d kind of been putting her off, to be honest. She’s gotten a lot of press, and she doesn’t really need the tribute I can give her. But Mary Tyler Moore and Barbara Hale died this week, so it seemed time. There are not a lot of women from the first Golden Age of Television left, and it seemed appropriate to take a moment to honour one of the few remaining.