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.