Thursday, July 12th, 2012

Angela Lansbury Or Betty White?

First in a series: Two choices—which do you choose?

The mid 80s and early 90s were the golden age for television shows about old people. And no shows did that better than "The Golden Girls" and "Murder, She Wrote." Though both shows ended their runs nearly two decades ago and their stars' lifespans weren't expected, statistically, to last much beyond that, two of them—Betty "Rose Nylund" White and Angela "Jessica Fletcher" Lansbury—are still with us today and going strong.

Betty White, of course, is in the throes of yet another late-career revival. Now 90 years old, she's currently starring in a sitcom on TV Land, hosting a terrible candid camera show on NBC, and cameo-ing everywhere else. White never really left us once "Golden Girls" (and its spin-off "The Golden Palace" which it's probably best never to mention again) went off the air, but that Facebook campaign to get her to host "Saturday Night Live" way back in 2010 certainly ushered in a renaissance of White appreciation.

And then there's Angela Lansbury. She, too, kept busy after "Murder, She Wrote" ended. But for some reason, her profile has been much lower. Just four years younger than White, she spent her post-"Murder" years in Broadway plays, on various incarnations of "Law & Order," and even got stuck in a Jim Carrey film about penguins last year. Around the same time White was preparing for her "SNL" gig, Lansbury received her seventh Tony nomination. And yet, when I mention Lansbury to friends, they usually say something like “didn’t she die after ‘Murder, She Wrote?" Which, no, she didn't.

I don't understand. Why does White get all the attention? Why is Betty White "America's Grandma" while Angela Lansbury's fame extends only to those of us who can't stop watching reruns of "Murder, She Wrote?" (now on Netflix Instant! Twelve seasons' worth! Don't even try to go outside this summer!) What does White have that Lansbury lacks?

If there isn't enough room in America's heart for two indomitable old ladies (and why isn't there?), we'd better make sure we're giving the right one the "SNL" hosting gigs and crappy NBC shows. Surely the best way to compare White and Lansbury is with a chart.

Really, it's not talent or experience that gives White the edge over Lansbury (because they both have plenty): it's that White is primarily a comedic actress and Lansbury is a dramatic one. White made her bones as the star of one of the earliest sitcoms on television (1952-55’s “Life with Elizabeth”); Lansbury was just 18 and 19 when she received back-to-back Oscar nominations for two of her first three films. White brings a winking mischievousness to her roles, while Lansbury imbues hers with a certain dignity. Basically, White is obviously in on the joke. Lansbury can be so deadpan and subtle that it seems like she isn’t aware of it at all. For this, White will always seem that much more loveable, approachable, and, ultimately, the darling old lady of choice.

That is not to say that Lansbury shouldn't get the kind of attention White has, or that she shouldn't get to host "SNL." We've seen plenty of straight-laced, cold English actors let loose as "SNL" hosts. If anything, she's better able to do it that White was with her live theatre chops. And Lansbury definitely has a ridiculous side, albeit unintentionally so, to which anyone who has seen the video component to her "Positive Moves: Healthy Living for Old People the Lansbury Way, Which Includes Plenty of Self-Massage, Peach Jumpsuits, Hip Thrusts, a Surprising Amount of Skin, and Soft-Core Porn Saxophones" book series can attest.

What's that, you say? You haven't seen it, but you can't imagine that my description is accurate? Well, it is, and here's a montage I found on Youtube to prove it:

We all think about Jessica Fletcher a little differently now, don't we? You're welcome.

So, yes, Betty White deserves to be our Queen of Pop Culture (Category: Awesome Senior Citizens). But maybe—just maybe!—Angela Lansbury can be our Pop Culture Princess. After all, many of us grew up with two grandmothers, loved equally. Why not two surrogate grandmother pop-culture icons, too? Instead of throwing our next Olympic hero into a hosting role he or she definitely can't do to open the next season of "SNL," let's give Angela Lansbury a chance to shine.

One thing: Facebook campaigns are so over. It's all about the #AngelaHostsSNL hashtag. I look forward to your efforts, Twitter.

Sara Morrison is a journalist in New York City. Her roommate won't let her adopt any adorable kittens.

28 Comments / Post A Comment

ejcsanfran (#489)

OH COME ON! You left out Mame, Mrs. Iselin andMrs. Lovett. I think Betty White is grand, but she is no Angela Lansbury.

Bittersweet (#765)

@ejcsanfran Heh heh, great minds…and ours too.

Bittersweet (#765)

Angela Lansbury's Iconic Roles section is missing Mrs. Lovett from Sweeney Todd, which gives her the eternal edge in this competition. (Sorry Betty, love ya.)

Grrg (#5,294)

No but seriously, the role of Mrs Lovett is the DEFINITION of an iconic role, and in addition HAVE YOU SERIOUSLY NEVER SEEN THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE?

ejcsanfran (#489)

@Grrg: Angela Lansbury is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I've ever known in my life.

@Grrg THANK YOU, SIR. Also, Bedknobs & Broomsticks? I mean I cherish TV Legend Betty White, but Jesus, one of these actresses had a film career and a stage career and one of them did not.

@Grrg It's not about who has the most prestigious career or who is the most talented. It's who is best suited to be "America's Grandma." And sadly, these days I think Lansbury is better known as Jessica Fletcher and Mrs. Potts than she is for Manchurian Candidate or her stage work.

Grrg (#5,294)

It's great that you think that. But if you're actually sad about it, you can console yourself with the fact that it is not true.

I guarantee that if you asked people what they best knew Lansbury for, 9 out of 10 would say "Murder, She Wrote" or Mrs. Potts. But do feel free to write your own piece arguing otherwise if you feel this strongly.

@Grrg I think Sara's right that that's what Lansbury's actually "better known" for. She is better known for it, by most people! And it is sad! But I don't see how this somehow costs her the crown. CLEARLY she is the objectively more awesome senior citizen.

LondonLee (#922)

This "best known" yardstick is sorta silly. Would you judge Frank Sinatra by "New York, New York"?

Brunhilde (#1,225)


Amphora (#231,928)

I will always love Angela Lansbury but Betty White's from my hometown! That settles it.

VanityFeral (#6,607)


Grrg (#5,294)

There's also this amazing performance right here. And while Mama Rose will always be Ethel Merman's "iconic role," didn't Jule Styne prefer Lansbury's interpretation of the role to Merman's? I'm pretty sure I read that somewhere…

barnhouse (#1,326)

Angela Lansbury AND Betty White. #obviously

AND Hermione Gingold, while we're at it.

Bittersweet (#765)

@barnhouse H.G. can maybe be our beloved dead grandma, RIP?

barnhouse (#1,326)

Oh yes indeed, seeing that you are so generous to share. And if she'll have me, in view of the fact that I spent many childhood years thinking her name was pronounced HER-me-own.

Claire Zulkey (#6,639)

I say Angela just because Betty seems like the obvious popular choice and for some reason I always root for the one who I think will lose the popular vote.

drinksmokee (#235,856)

wow! grandma is a gunner!

I think the main thing is that Lansbury is remembered best for Murder She Wrote, which is a textbook case of a show pandering to its audience's fears and prejudices. Take a look. It's disgusting. Whereas Golden Girls (as much as I love Manchurian Candidate and MTM these are the realistic terms of the discussion today), for all the cringes it may induce in some, is about breaking molds and defying expectations. It may have been predictable from the other side but it was at heart a progressive show, a forward looking show, a show of love. Murder She Wrote, however, was a deeply conservative show dedicated to fear-mongering and stereotypes. So that's my choice, the dark, hideous dungeon of the past and its moronic fears, or the bright Miami future and its limitless possibilities.

PS: Cloris Fucking Leachman.

Thinking of Mrs Lovett, Imelda Staunton is extraordinary in the production of Sweeney Todd currently on in London. Anybody around here, I highly recommend it!

LondonLee (#922)

Sara, why don't you pass the time by playing a little solitaire?

Ham Snadwich (#11,842)

I'm going Angela Lansbury. Murder She Wrote was terrible if you accepted the premise that Jessica Fletcher was a mystery writer that just happened across all these murders. Much more interesting if you accept the fact that she was probably a highly intelligent serial killer that fabricated incredibly detailed stories to cover up a string of murders that stretched out over years. Sort of the ur-Dexter.

Of course Angela Lansbury can be called up to active duty in wartime. Haven't you ever seen Bedknobs and Broomsticks?

A Good Question (#182,018)

Wes Anderson has said something about wanting to work with Angela Lansbury, so that might let people know she's still alive. If it's a big-screen "Murder She Wrote" adaptation with a lot of primary colors, I won't complain.

Manda Lynn@facebook (#234,918)

I can't imagine a world without Angela Lansbury!!! As a musical geek (cuz DUH it's awesome to love musicals) I can't imagine SOOOO many shows without her! Most recently, my friend put in the soundtrack from the movie version of Sweeney Todd and it was NOT AS GOOD and I complained…

Adiko Josh (#237,392)

Angela was the best one.

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