Betty White Wasn’t Too Nice. She Was Just Nice Enough.
It felt sadly symbolic that a year largely defined by its unpleasant moments ended with the death of Betty White, the Nicest Woman In America.
When she died Friday at the age of 99 and 347/365ths, Betty White remained what we telescope our mother or grandmother or favorite aunt to have been — a perpetually nice person, always upbeat, never a harsh word about anybody or anything.
Without suggesting any negative inside information about Ms. White, that probably underestimates her. It makes her seem like a two-dimensional figure, which she very likely was not.
I imagine that Betty White, like everyone else in the human race, privately held an unkind opinion or two. She was just able to keep it private, which is hard for anyone and nearly impossible when you’re a famous person and pretty much everything in your life has a way of eventually becoming public.
But Betty White never showed a side that was even a little bit dark, despite having prominent roles in two widely watched sitcoms (“The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “Golden Girls”), popping up on hundreds of talk shows and quiz shows, hosting Saturday Night Live and generally blanketing American culture. And all that was just in her second life. She had an earlier public life that also played out on television in the 1950s, with popular shows and a high pop-culture profile.
One of the interesting things about all her roles, including Sue Ann Nevins on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Rose Nylund on Golden Girls, is that White was never the featured star.
We noticed her, because she was good. But so were the performers around her. She didn’t tower above the crowd. She blended in with it. She wasn’t larger than life. She was exactly life-size. What we knew about Betty White off-camera wasn’t that she hung out with famous people, but that she supported animal welfare causes. She was kind to puppies.
If you found yourself sitting next to Mary Tyler Moore on an airplane, it would be, like, OMG. If you found yourself sitting next to Betty White, you’d be no less impressed but far more likely to feel like you could have a regular-person conversation and not just gasp that you’re her biggest fan.
White was clearly aware of her place in the culture, even as she seemed genuinely amused that she had somehow waltzed right through the period in any performer’s life when he or she is supposed to be supplanted by the next generations and be mostly forgotten.
She seemed to enjoy where she had landed, somewhere between campy and cool, and why not? There aren’t many better places for a famous person to spend her 80s and 90s.
She also made it look easy to be Betty White, belying the work that went into that. She was good at her job, which involved making it look like she had rolled out of bed and became Sue Ann or Rose with no more effort than brewing her morning cup of coffee.
Now to be totally honest, without suggesting anything nefarious, there was probably an extent to which the rest of us didn’t want to see anything negative in Betty White. We have plenty of flawed famous people, so it’s great once in a while to have one we don’t have to worry about.
Nice job, Betty White.