Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Rose, Blanche and the Various Colors in Between

Except for Estelle Getty, the stars of Golden Girls would have been familiar to most TV viewers, and, at that, they would have been already associated with certain types of characters. This is perhaps most true for Bea Arthur, as Dorothy Zbornak is cut from the same cloth as Maude from Maude. But I’m not talking about Bea Arthur today. (Apologies, Bea.) No, I’m more concerned with this: On Golden Girls, Betty White and Rue McClanahan got a chance to play characters who contrasted against the types they’d previously played on TV.

White would have been familiar as the superficially sweet but truthfully evil Sue Ann Nivens from The Mary Tyler Moore Show. And after that, Betty White appeared on Mama’s Family (version 1.0, pre-syndication years) as Ellen, the snobbish oldest daughter of Vicki Lawrence’s character. McClanahan, on the other hand, would have been best remembered as Vivian, the dim but goodhearted friend of Maude. And after that, she became the prim Aunt Fran on the same era of Mama’s Family that White appeared on. Thus, if Golden Girls had stuck to the trend, Betty White should have played man-hungry Blanche and Rue McClanahan should have played airheaded pollyana Rose.

In fact, as many Golden Girls buffs know, that was originally the plan. However, White and McClanahan were aware enough of the public’s perception of them as actresses that they thought it would be better TV — and, truth be known, more fun — to play against type, so they swapped roles at the suggestion of Jay Sandrich, frequent Mary Tyler Moore director and also the director of the Golden Girls pilot. As White explained in an interview:
[If] I was going to play another man-hungry neighborhood you-know-what, the audience was going to equate it with Sue Ann and just a continuation of her role. So [Sandrich] had the bright idea to have Rue, who was intended to play Rose, play Blanche. Rue had just come off Mama’s Family, where she played a quiet and rather mousey sister. So it was a perfect switch, in hindsight. … And Rue, my god, she took Blanche out into orbit where I would have never dared to go. So I just think it worked out beautifully. If I had half the sex life Blanche had I would have been dead from exhaustion.
As a result, the roles of Rose Nylund and Blanche Devereaux came to define White and McClananhan, regardless of how many characters they had portrayed previously. (By the way, the English major in me can’t help pointing out that the meaning of the characters’ names would make more sense if Blanche, “white,” had been the naive one and Rose, a sensual red color, would have been the vixen.) Credit the success of the show or the life that either actress breathed into the characters, but I can think of few other actors who became so defined by their roles so late in their careers. Even today, nearly twenty years after Golden Girls concluded, it seems hard to think of either Betty White or Rue McClanahan without also thinking about Rose and Blanche. And I’d guess that could result from Rose being a little closer to Betty White’s actual personality and Blanche being closer to Rue McClanahan’s. The former’s marriage to Allen Ludden is the stuff of frosting and hayrides and all-American picnics; the latter had tumultuous relationships with men, though she was married to her sixth and final husband the longest, from 1997 to her death in 2010.

Of course, I can only guess, but it’s fun to think about.

Unrelated, more or less: Isn’t it weird that Rue McClanahan was in Starship Troopers?

TV, previously:

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