Last week’s passing of actor Dixie Carter has reminded me just how much most of us could use a friend like Julia Sugarbaker.
Most will remember Carter, first and foremost, as the smartest and sassiest woman in the Southern foursome of “Designing Women,” the CBS series that ran from 1986 to 1993. Oh, the anticipatory thrill whenever Carter’s Julia Sugarbaker set her sights on someone who had committed the crime of small-minded thinking, be it prejudice, sexism or just plain stupidity.
Carter had this sexy yogi way about her, floating into every room with a mane of soft curls and an above-it-all air of tolerance for the fools among her. Except when those fools violated the boundaries of common sense — or the people she loved. Then she was the friend you wish you had, the woman you hoped you could be.
Carter’s Julia was a confounding woman for those who think liberal politics and feminine wiles can’t coexist in a body that turns grown men into silly boys. She was a sashaying feminist whose combined gifts of décolletage, drollery and drawl left many a man reeling — and occasionally speechless.
In one of her many celebrated scenes, Carter’s Julia gives a history lesson to real-life husband Hal Holbrook, who played her steady beau, after it’s clear he and his hapless buddies have forgotten who led the world to its current state of debauchery:
“It has been the men who have done the pillagin’ and the beheadin’ and the subjugatin’ of whole races into slavery. It has been the men who have done the lawmakin’ and the moneymakin’ and most of the mischief-makin.’ So if the world isn’t quite what you had in mind, you have only yourselves to thank.”
The studio audience roars, as it so often does when Carter steals the scene.
Holbrook puts his hands on his hips and smiles. “Oh, yeah?” he says. “That’s what you think about men? Well, let me tell you about women.”
“Yeah?” the women in the room shout. “What?”
“They’re always late.” That’s all he had.
Too bad Carter’s character never wrote a newspaper column. She would have been hell-on-heels for those nasty anonymous commenters.
As much as I admired Carter’s ability to spike men’s assumptions, it was her role — and reputation — as the fierce friend that most moved me. My favorite Julia scene: She is backstage at a beauty pageant after overhearing Miss Full-of-Herself Georgia World ’86 bad-mouth her high-maintenance baby sister, Suzanne Sugarbaker.
The clouds swirl and the heavens thunder as Carter steps in front of the much younger, much taller blond beauty and lets loose the storm of sisterhood:
“You probably didn’t know that Suzanne was the only contestant in Georgia pageant history to sweep every category except congeniality — and that is not something the women in my family aspire to anyway.
“Or that when she walked down the runway in her swimsuit, five contestants quit on the spot.
“Or that when she emerged from the isolation booth to answer the question ‘What would you do to prevent war?’ she spoke so eloquently of patriotism, battlefields and diamond tiaras grown men wept.
“And you probably didn’t know, Marjorie, that Suzanne was not just any Miss Georgia; she was the Miss Georgia. She didn’t twirl just a baton; that baton was on fire. And when she threw that baton into the air, it flew higher, farther, faster than any baton has ever flown before — hitting a transformer and showering the darkened arena with sparks. And when it finally did come down, Marjorie, my sister caught that baton, and 12,000 people jumped to their feet for 16 and one-half minutes of uninterrupted thunderous ovation as flames illuminated her tear-stained face.
“And that, Marjorie — just so you will know and your children will someday know — is the night. The lights. Went out. In Georgia.”
No matter how old we get, there always will be a Mean Girls Club. Most women yearn for that Julia Sugarbaker kind of friend who overhears the nasty gossip and steps up to unravel the yarn on our behalf.
The best way to find that kind of friend, of course, is to be one.
And you don’t have to be in the South to live in the land of Dixie.
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland and the author of two books.