In this week’s romantic comedy The Proposal, Betty White steals scenes as Grandma Annie, the spunky, slightly daffy grandmother who welcomes her grandson (Ryan Reynolds) and his boss — an uptight exec who has secretly blackmailed him (Sandra Bullock) into marriage — into her Alaskan home. (Naturally, hilarity ensues, most often when White is onscreen befuddling her future granddaughter-in-law.)
Rotten Tomatoes was honored to sit down with Betty White to discuss her Five Favorite Films (hint: she’s a romantic at heart) and to revisit her incredible career in Hollywood — an impressive body of work that includes hosting her own self-titled talk show, her own variety show, creating iconic characters like “The Happy Homemaker” Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Rose Nylund on The Golden Girls, and winning five Emmys — all before jumping headfirst into movie roles. Read on to learn Betty White’s Five Favorite Films and hear her insights into great television writing, silly moments on the set of The Proposal, and her take on the art of the conversation.
I don’t think I’d be in this business if it wasn’t for Naughty Marietta, with Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald. I was 14 and I was SO in love with Nelson Eddy I thought it was the end of the world, and I didn’t just like Jeanette MacDonald, I was Jeanette MacDonald! You know, at 14. And at 14 I also thought, Nelson Eddy married somebody and I thought he needed a much younger woman. I think I saw Naughty Marietta 48 times. I wasn’t even interested in show business until then; I did school plays and that kind of thing, but I hadn’t thought of it as a career until I got hooked.
I think it’s one of the love stories of the world. The music — I think it’s the most evocative score in the world, it’s just so beautiful.
Lost Horizon is also one of my top, top favorites… it’s a James Hilton book; Frank Capra made the first one and they remade it. It’s set up in the Andes, where Shangri-La is a valley unlike any place on earth. Jane Wyatt and Ronald Coleman starred in the first one. Again, it’s terribly romantic; I’m a romantic nut!
Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep; again, I thought it was a love story where you cared about [the characters]… I guess it just boils down to chemistry, Jennifer; when they deal you in, you get involved.
Rotten Tomatoes: I love this romantic streak! One of my favorite films is also a romance: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.
Oh, yes, it’s beautiful! There’s something about that film, Out of Africa, and even Bridges of Madison County — it’s that lovely, warm love story with a sadness at the end that just stays with you. [These are movies I watch over and over] or get the DVD when you want a fix; you put it in and just relax and enjoy.
It was seeing Meryl Streep for the first time, seeing that performance. You don’t often see somebody just come out from the screen, grab you by the shoulders, and bring you back in. I think it was that that got me about it.
Next: Betty White shares silly moments on the set of The Proposal, reminisces about The Golden Girls, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and her own unscripted talk show, and examines the art of the conversation
In The Proposal we get to see you in a really fun role; Grandma Annie is sort of a naughty grandmother.
Betty White: Well, she’s not naughty, she’s just a very strong lady who wants to get these two people together. She’s the only one in the beginning who sees the good side of Margaret (Sandra Bullock) in the film. We had such fun doing it… from a personal standpoint, you don’t get parts like that very often, at this age, and we had such a good time. When I heard Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds were going to do it, and the chemistry was just such fun, it was like going to a party.
You can tell by watching the film that the whole cast has good chemistry.
BW: Mary Steenburgen, Craig T. Nelson — well, Craig is the funniest man on two feet. I had seen him on Coach, but I’d never thought of him as that funny. We finally got to the point — we just hit each other funny — so we couldn’t ever lock eyes. We’d be talking to each other and I’d have to look past him, and he’d have to look past me, because if we’d ever caught each others’ eye we’d just break up, and we couldn’t explain it! It was just silly, but it was fun.
Speaking of fun, I think members of my generation know you best for your role as Rose on the long-running sitcom The Golden Girls, which coincidentally all of the journalists were just watching here while waiting to speak with you.
BW: You’re kidding! You haven’t heard enough of us yet, God bless your heart! The Golden Girls was such good writing, it holds up. I think so many of these things go right back to the writing; Golden Girls is a classic example of that, that and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. We were like four points on a compass. Our characters were all so different but we had plenty to do in every show. The writers would throw a situation in the middle of the table and the audience would wait to see how each character reacted to it. Made it fun to do.
I loved the show growing up. That and Mama’s Family, too. But your career started way before those shows; you did radio and even hosted your own television show…
BW: Oh, there were five “Betty White” shows altogether! I started five and a half hours a day, six days a week, ad-libbing with no script. That’s like going to television college, because whatever happens, happens on camera! You’ve got to handle it. So I’ve always been grateful for that.
Back then, how difficult was it as a female performer to get to that level in Hollywood?
BW: What was really hard was that on my first series, Life with Elizabeth, I was also the producer. And for a woman to be in the production side of it was very unusual. But again, it was a great experience — and sheer blind luck. [Laughs]
Also, I had an NBC half-hour talk show in 1954 where I’d sing a couple of songs and then interview a couple of people. When you’ve been in the business for 60 years, you’ve done a little bit of everything! I did commentary on the Rose Parade for 20 years. It’s just been a lovely go. But I didn’t do movies, I was always in television. Just in the last five years I’ve done movies, and it’s a whole different ball game. With television, you do it, you go home and watch it, and it’s done. With movies, you go and you work, and then it disappears, and then a year later it comes back after it’s edited and you talk about it!
Given your experience as an on-the-fly interviewer, what advice could you give me from your days on that five and a half hour interview show?
BW: I’m a baboon to give advice to anybody, Jennifer. [Smiles] But I think the biggest problem sometimes that you have in being interviewed is that people will ask you a question, but they’re so busy thinking about the next question that they never hear what you say. The good interviewers do what you’ve done, what Jack Parr and Johnny Carson did — Jack Parr maybe even better than Johnny; they’ll listen to the answer, and find something in the answer. They won’t go where they were going to go next; they’ll follow that through and go down a whole other alley. And that’s when an interview gets interesting — both for the people involved and the audience.
Of course; it’s more conversational, more natural.
BW: That’s right. As happens in a conversation!
And that makes a lot more sense for a live, on-air interview, for an audience to be able to watch a conversation unfold.
BW: But now with TV shows they do a “pre-interview.” Somebody will call, and they’ll ask you all the questions that you used to answer on the show, and when you get to the actual interview the host will go down those questions. So all the spontaneity is gone. When I was doing my talk show, I wouldn’t talk to the people before the show, because otherwise they’d leave their interview out in the hall! It was more fun that way.