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Betty White on Ageism: "Get Over It!"

AARP film critic Tim Appelo discusses how the late actress embraced aging with positivity and humor

Betty White

Alamy Stock Photo/AARP

Wilma Consul:

Hi, I’m Wilma Consul with An AARP Take on Today. Betty White lit television screens and made us laugh in her seven decades as an actor and a comedian, the longest record for an actress to be in the entertainment business. Betty White was ready to celebrate her 100th birthday on January 17th, but on New Year's Eve, she died peacefully in her sleep. Since the announcement of her death, our golden girl shines even brighter with the outpour of appreciation for her work on television and her life's dedication to animal welfare. For us here at AARP, Betty White is also a she-ro of sorts. She embraced aging with positivity and with humor.



Betty White:

"If you're 50 or over but hesitant to join AARP because you think it'll make you old, I have a very important message. Get over it."



Wilma Consul:

Well, how about that. Get over it, she says. That's from an ad she did for AARP in 2011. On today's show, we sit down with Tim Appelo, AARP's film critic, to talk about how Betty White defied expectations about aging. Hi Tim, thank you for joining us.



Tim Appelo:

Glad to be here.



Wilma Consul:

So, Tim, it's so great to meet you. How long have you been critiquing films and watching television?



Tim Appelo:

Well, I've been critiquing them since I was born I think, but I've been doing it for a living for 44 years.



Wilma Consul:

Wow. And in that time you've watched Betty White's career. Tell us about the highlights.



Tim Appelo:

Well, I mean, she started out when TV started out. She was a teenager in 1939 and TV was kind of experimental at the time but she got a show and she got great training because in those days, TV was live, so you'd be on five hours, she'd be on five hours at a time and improvising the whole time. So you see that gift all through her career. There's a very hilarious outtake from The Proposal, the film with Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds.



Wilma Consul:

Ryan Reynolds.



Tim Appelo:

And she and Ryan Reynolds staged a feud, it's just absolutely hilarious and her timing couldn't be better. I urge everybody to look for it, the clip, online. It is very funny. Of course, it was a mock feud but they were really good. And you see the roots in her gift in that training she got right when nobody knew how to do TV. She basically helped invent TV.



Wilma Consul:

And so, what else are some of the highlights? She had that one first show, right? Something About Elizabeth?



Tim Appelo:

So her early show, Life with Elizabeth, was her show. I mean, she was the creator of the show, which is very unusual, and that was the template that Mary Tyler Moore later followed in her career to their mutual benefit.



Wilma Consul:

Wow. And so, when Betty White's career took off in the Mary Tyler Moore Show, she's already done radio after they canceled Life with Elizabeth, she was on radio, and then at 50 years old, around that age, she joined the Mary Tyler Moore Show. How significant was her role as Sue Nivens in an industry where it's often about being young and hot?



Tim Appelo:

Well, it was transformative because she was still kind of hot and that was part of her character's persona. She was very lively and her romantic life was not at all in the past. She was very lively, so that was subverting the stereotypes of aging at the time. Also, she played the happy homemaker, which was a very confining stereotype of early women on television but she subverted it by being really quite nasty. She was not Mary Tyler Moore's friend but frenemy. Probably the least sympathetic person on the show almost.



Tim Appelo:

And that was important because when older people were permitted to be on television, it was always in a very condescending way, often as the butt of humor and often in a confining, sentimental kind of role. Cute old people who aren't really taken fully seriously. And so, she was breaking all kinds of barriers in that character, which really helped the show I think by giving it a little spice, a little tang of nastiness. Being a star was not associated with being a 50-year-old or more at the time and she subverted the image in creative and productive ways, in all kinds of ways, and helped create a classic.



Wilma Consul:

Yeah, and that was done in the '70s in a show about journalism. Can you imagine?



Tim Appelo:

Yeah. Yeah. It was not an expected thing and she helped make it happen.



Wilma Consul:

And of course, in Golden Girls, one of her most famous characters is Rose Nylund and that's a show about older women who shared a home in Miami. Now, this is aging at its best.



Tim Appelo:

Yeah. Nobody believed that that show could hit because I mean the only thing worse than one older person on a TV show would be a whole TV show full of old people. Oh no! And of course, it hit big because there's an enormous audience and we are the champion TV watchers and so they finally, "Oh," the suits finally realized, "if we could get past our stupid stereotypes we could make some money here and have a hit." And she helped make that one happen with a very different character, much kindlier, a little dingier but still quite brilliant. There's a clip of her improvising on that show with the other cast members and she's just completely leading them down a path of crazy improvisation. It's a joke about herring and it's a joke nobody else could have pulled off but she just kept it going. And with that ace timing that she had perfected over all those years and all those Emmy nominations.



Betty White:

This is exactly what happened during the Great Herring War.



Tue McClanahan:

The Great Herring War?



Betty White:

Yes, between the Lindstrom’s and the O’Hansens.



Bea Arthur:

Oh, that Great Herring War!



Tim Appelo:

She just made it immediate and vivid and spontaneous. She proved that grownups can be TV stars and they don't have to stop when they hit 50. In fact, she only picked up speed with each succeeding decade.



Wilma Consul:

Yeah. So it seems like her age contributed to her star appeal.



Tim Appelo:

Well, when she was young she lied about her age like everybody did because you had to, but as she got older her age became a selling point and people liked her more the older she was. She was unique in making yet another comeback at 87 when she did a Superbowl ad for Snicker's and it was so popular that it provoked a spontaneous Facebook campaign to get her to host Saturday Night Live. Now they'd asked her three times before to host Saturday Night Live and she'd always said no, but finally that pressured her and them into doing it, and of course, she was a sensation and more Emmy honors followed and her star only rose higher. Hot in Cleveland and just many appearances all over the place. She became arguably the most beloved person in Hollywood I think, and it was quite inspiring to people who are aging along with her to see that opportunity doesn't have to diminish and indeed older stars and older audiences are worth investing in. It pays off.



Wilma Consul:

Yeah, I was just watching on YouTube the SNL monologue and her timing is just amazing and she has this charm. And her bit about Facebook is kind of funny. But Betty White, she's not the only one who is an older actor in Hollywood. She obviously fought ageism. What did she do differently from other actors that helped her stay relevant?



Tim Appelo:

I think that she both helped destigmatize aging in Hollywood and she blazed a path for other people. And I think that her success helps convince that they don't have to go down that path of shame and denial and pretending to be young. In some ways, it can be better to be older if you've made it to a certain level. She proved that you could have come back after come back. In fact, you don't ever have to go away.




Wilma Consul:

So Tim, you obviously know a lot about Ms. Betty White and you wrote her obituary for AARP. What do you think people should know about her that they might not already know?



Tim Appelo:

Well, her career also shows some of the pressures on women. She never had her own children, partly because she knew it would threaten her career in those days and she made her choice. She was a great stepmother but she made that choice and that's kind of an interesting personal write. And she had a couple of early marriages that didn't work out, partly because they didn't want her to have a career, they wanted her to be on a chicken ranch, one of them. But she married TV game-show host Allen Ludden, and it was just one of the best marriages in Hollywood. He tragically died young, cancer, and she never remarried but I think that her personal life shows that you don't have to have a perfectly charmed life, you can overcome obstacles and personal tragedy and have a wonderful life. Also, people don't know I think, not enough people know about her great animal activism. With Doris Day, she was one of the biggest animal rights activists we'll ever see and that was a real parallel career she had, so she was nurturing in all kinds of ways. She wasn't just as mean as Sue Ann, you know?



Wilma Consul:

Yeah. I remember watching her, I didn't realize they were husband and wife then, with Allen Ludden, on Password Plus.



Tim Appelo:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, she was terrific on any kind of ... When she was a guest, she was always a reliable comedian and I think it's that early touch she had. She had the experience. In a lot of businesses, they realize that experience makes you better and it's finally dawning on Hollywood that experience can make you better and older stars can be more valuable than the latest ingenue.



Wilma Consul:

Tim Appelo is a film and TV critic at AARP. Thank you for joining us, Tim.



Tim Appelo:

You bet.



Wilma Consul:

If you want to watch more from Betty White, check out the show description. You’ll find a link to an article called “100 Ways to Remember and Celebrate Betty White’s Life”. Our AARP writers compiled 100 videos and events that you can explore in the lead-up to her birthday. We’ll also include links to some ads she did for AARP.

 

That's it for today's show. If you like this episode, please let us know by emailing us at newspodcast@aarp.org.

 

Thanks to our news team producers, Colby Nelson and Danny Alarcon. Production assistant, Lindsey Johnson. Engineer, Julio Gonzales. Executive producer, Jason Young, and my co-hosts Bob Edwards and Mike Ellison. Become a subscriber on Apple Podcast, Google Play, Stitcher or other apps. And be sure to rate our show as well. For an AARP Take on Today, I'm Wilma Consul. Thank you for listening.

Betty White was ready to celebrate her 100th birthday on January 17th. But on New Year’s Eve, she died peacefully in her sleep. She lit television screens, and made us laugh in her seven decades as an actor and comedian. For us here at AARP, Betty White is also a she-ro of sorts. She embraced aging with positivity, and with humor. This week, we sat down with AARP film critic Tim Appelo to discuss the ways Betty White rose above Hollywood ageism.

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