The Kinship Of Betty And Joan (The Other Ones)

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I was really interested to see if, on her Emmy fashion-takedown "Fashion Police," Joan Rivers would critique Betty White, that other Hollywood grande dame of 2010.


Spoiler alert: she didn't.

Betty White's rainbow-sherbert hued two-piece getup ("an old warhorse I found in my closet") was spared the barbs of Joan Rivers' famously sharp tongue. Which maybe makes the most sense after all? Like parallel lines never meeting, the two near-contemporaries are maybe too opposed to collide. But maybe there are more similarities than meet the eye.

[Correction: she did! Tweeted she: "Betty White, at 88, looked great at the Emmys in a waterproof dress that was split up the back. Jack Kevorkian followed her around all night." ]

Think about it: the two may have nothing in common but AARP cards and (dubious) accessories lines, but in Hollywood, sadly, two women in (respectively) their 70s and 80s experiencing resurgences is still a Big Deal. No one needs to hear about Betty White's third-act rise to prominence, as the last Golden Girl became the object of fan petitions, the subject of Proust Questionnaires, the star of a new sitcom and the recipient of an Emmy for her SNL spot. Rivers, meanwhile, was reinstated on Fashion Police and was the subject of a revealing documentary, A Piece of Work, which showed another side of the woman behind the barbs and the workaholic behind everything.

Their public personas could hardly be more different. "You are the sweetest, most kindest woman in show-business," gushes one red-carpet hostess to White. On SNL and on her show Hot in Cleveland, White's gags are based on subverting the sweet Grandma role. Rivers, meanwhile, elicits comments like, "Mean girls aren't funny in middle school, and they certainly aren't funny when they're in their 80s," and "She is now all hokey one-liners and insults, plastic surgery and cheap jewelry, mean-spirited barbs and rocks-thrown-from-a-glass-house." Rivers has made her living as a professional bitch, and for many, that's unseemly in an older woman.

The realities, of course, are always different — Rivers is rumored to be softer, White tougher, than their personas would imply. Both have shown a willingness to play the "old lady" (see: Rivers' Depends jokes) in order to stay in the game, albeit different sides of the coin. Yet in interview after interview - and this is what put the comparison in my head in the first place — both talk over and over about their work ethics. Joan Rivers is tireless, famous for 130 stand-up gigs a year, her QVC shilling, and of course her glass-housed fashion-policing. Asked in Vanity Fair what trait she most deplores in herself, "National treasure Betty White" responds, "Being an incurable workaholic."


These two veterans, however different, came of age in the same tough business and have held on. Rivers clawed her way onto TV as Candid Camera bait and rounds of the comedy clubs before hitting it big on Carson. White, meanwhile, was a TV pioneer, a producer, host and creator of her own production company and the vet of dozens of TV and radio gigs. To call TV and comedy of the 50s and 60s "a man's world" is understatement of the highest order. And while it's facile to point to the fact that both women were tragically widowed — and that this forms no part of either one's contemporary self-portrait — it does point to a toughness that may not be incidental.

I'm not saying either woman would welcome this comparison, but it's intended as nothing but a compliment to the kind of grit that keeps people around in a fickle and often brutal business. The differing trajectories and perceptions may provide an object lesson in cultural stereotyping, but the similarities are what are really instructive. And with that, apologies and compliments to both.


Betty White [Vanity Fair]
Q&A: Joan Rivers [NY Post]
Joan Rivers on Fashion Police [Slate]

Rivers Takes Aim at Stars' Outfits at Oscars [NY Times]



I don't find Joan River's bitchiness unseemly at her age. I hated her when she was young, too.