Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Last Acts

The resurgence of Betty White's career is satisfying to witness. But the truth is she never stopped working or faded away. She's been a continuous presence on television since its inception, making her debut in 1949, and on radio long before that. You can watch her as a young woman in her own series Life With Elizabeth beginning in 1952, frozen forever at age 30 in the cinched dresses of the period, then chart her progress through the decade to a surprising appearance as a U.S. Senator in 1962's Advise & Consent, with a pit stop on Password, where she married the host. Then come the iconic comedic characters, the man-hungry Happy Homemaker Sue Ann Nivens, followed by her polar opposite, the dizzy simpleton Rose Nylund. and when she's not on TV, she's making films. I still remember watching her feed cows to the giant alligator in Lake Placid when I saw it in the theatre (don't ask) and how the audience gasped when she called the sheriff "Fuck Meat." It's around that time that her crusty, self-deprecating humor really blossomed and bloomed, but she's continued to test her mettle in television series like Ally McBeal and Boston Legal, right up to her recent Facebook-fueled Saturday Night Live guest host gig. And tomorrow she launches yet another series, with the let's-hope-it's-better-than-it-looks TV Land Network premier of Hot In Cleveland.

With so much exposure, I hope that she doesn't degrade her brand -- because face it, Betty White's career right now is at a defining apex that it took 70 years to reach -- the way another enjoyable actress did about 25 years ago. After a long and distinguished career as a character actress on stage and film, and even as a screenwriter, Ruth Gordon came into her own in a similar way, already well into her 60s. Riding the success of Rosemary's BabyHarold & Maude and a few other notable screen credits, she became a hot commodity. Soon everywhere you looked she was twinkling and mugging her dried apple doll pixie face across the screen, playing everything from Carlton the Doorman's mother on Rhoda to making weakly-conceived guest appearances on Newhart, Taxi, and The Love Boat. Her characters were always eccentric and manic but ultimately wise from their years of hardscrabble living; there was always a message to impart before she left you too soon, much the way her most memorable character did when she took the poison tablets, on Maude's 80th birthday.  

Betty White is nearly 89, but I hope she has many more years of triumph and success. Unlike Ms. Gordon and some others, hers might be an image so familiar and edgy and likable that it's impervious to the tarnish of overexposure. We'll see.

No comments:

Post a Comment