Ever since she rose to national prominence playing a sassy homemaker on 1953’s Life with Elizabeth, Betty White has been bringing her unique brand of witty and ribald humor to American television. Now, at age eighty-eight, she has a career that’s already spanned six decades, and with upcoming appearances on Saturday Night Live and the new show Hot in Cleveland, she shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon. “I’m so pleasantly surprised when I get asked to do something, I always say yes,” White told USA Today. “Retirement is not in my vocabulary.”
But White’s show-business longevity isn’t due only to her career strategy of taking any job she can. Her natural charm and her special comedic talent have made her more than a television actress—she’s become a cultural icon.
She’s the Lady We All Want to Be
While other ’50s television housewives were doing daffy pratfalls or primly tut-tutting at their nincompoop husbands, White was spunky, mischievous, smart, and independent-minded. In her starring vehicle Life with Elizabeth, her character was someone that real housewives could identify with and aspire to be. As man-eating Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, White had license to be an outrageous, overtly sexual middle-aged woman. She gossiped, snarked, and had affairs with married men, all while pretending to be the perfect model of domesticity as the show-within-a-show’s “Happy Homemaker.” Recently, she’s made a cottage industry out of portraying hilariously foul-mouthed and ornery old ladies in movies like Lake Placid and Bringing Down the House, and television series such as Boston Legal and That ’70s Show. Who would rather play typical fawning grandmotherly types who bake cookies and knit sweaters when it’s so much more fun (and funny) to play a nasty grandma? White’s a champion at portraying old ladies with a lot of attitude, and isn’t that what most women hope to be when we grow up?
She Keeps Up with the Times
Betty has been working in television almost as long as television has been around, and she’s worked through many different trends and phases. When game shows were all the rage, she was a double entendre–spouting celebrity contestant. When it was funny to be an elderly lady navigating romance after retirement, she did it. Now she knows that it’s funny for young Super Bowl viewers to watch her get tackled by football players in a candy commercial or to appear on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson dressed as a Girl Scout. Although she’s said in interviews that she wishes television writers had more of the previous generations’ subtle style, she doesn’t sit on the sidelines out of principle. Her humor has held up, and she continues to evolve to appeal to new audiences by embracing the changing mores of comedy. Everybody has a parent or grandparent who still watches only black-and-white Westerns and refuses to wear clothing manufactured since 1970—White is the exact opposite of that. She knows what each generation finds funny, and she brings it in spades.
She Embraces Womanhood—And All It Encompasses
Over the years, one of the patterns that has connected Betty White’s iconic television and film performances is that her roles have been distinctively female ones. Whether as housewife Elizabeth, as Sue Ann Nivens, as The Golden Girls’ Rose Nylund, or in any of her later spunky-granny incarnations, White has excelled at playing female characters and discovering the hilarity, weirdness, sadness, and exuberance inherent in the female experience. While it’s not surprising that White’s female fans would identify with her through all stages of her life, White’s uncanny comic ability has endeared male fans to her as well, because she’s portrayed women as complicated characters who have more to offer the world than being an attractive second banana.
The fact that her characters are some of the best loved in all of television history isn’t a fluke—it’s because they’re multidimensional people whom White worked so hard to imbue with nuance and gravity. She showed the world that loving housewives can feel stifled and frustrated, that a lustful, lascivious homewrecker can also bake a perfect chocolate soufflé, and that nice retirees in Florida indeed sometimes buy condoms at the grocery store. Even in White’s comic appearances in films or guest-starring television roles, her characters are always fresh, unexpected, and humorous.
She’s Funny—Really Funny
The best thing about Betty is also one of the most basic: she’s a very, very funny lady. As she accepted her Lifetime Achievement Award from the Screen Actors Guild this year, she said, “I look out at this audience, and I see so many famous faces …but what really boggles my mind is that I actually know many of you, and I’ve worked with quite a few. Maybe even had a couple … and you know who you are.” At eighty-eight years old, the woman can still pull off a bawdy punch line.
Young viewers may think that they’ve discovered a forgotten treasure, but those of us devoted television watchers know that there has rarely been a year when our TV screens haven’t been graced with Betty’s hilarious presence. Although she could be enjoying a well-deserved retirement, White continues to entertain and delight, even while devoting much of her time to her other passion: helping animals. As she said at this year’s SAG awards, “You still can’t get rid of me!” The real question is, why would we want to? Betty, thank you for being a friend.