Mary Tyler Moore, TV’s Modern Woman

From a Wall Street Journal television review by John Anderson headlined “Mary Tyler Moore, TV’s Modern Woman”:

With all due respect to Mary Tyler Moore, two hours is a lot of Mary Tyler Moore—or anyone whose most significant contribution to pop culture aired its finale in 1977. “Being Mary Tyler Moore” does have its revelations: Moore, who died in 2017 at the age of 80, was far more intelligent and discerning than her characters—and her characters were almost always distinguished by intelligence and discernment.

Directed by James Adolphus (“Soul of a Nation”), the HBO documentary is almost too balanced: It puts just as much weight on Moore’s post-“Mary Tyler Moore Show” career as it does on her tenure as the show’s then-modern woman/career-gal Mary Richards, or as Laura Petrie, arguably the more revolutionary role of Moore’s career. Laura, wife of Rob Petrie on the landmark “Dick Van Dyke Show,” wore pants, had her own ideas and, unlike Lucy, Ethel or June Cleaver, was hot; there was no question that Rob and Laura had sex, which was unknown territory in early ’60s network TV.

Very smartly, and rather delightfully, Mr. Adolphus opens with a clip from a 1966 TV interview Moore did with TV host David Susskind, whose questions are rude (“Don’t you think working mothers sort of short-change their children?”) but provide a window into the genuine woman, who is sexy-cool and just short of intolerant of patriarchal nonsense. We often confuse actors with their characters, and this clip clears that up; another, in which Moore accepts one of her Emmys for the Van Dyke program, shows how easily she could slide back into the Laura Petrie persona when it suited her purpose.

The choice of interview footage for “Being Mary Tyler Moore” follows a similar stratagem to that of the Susskind bit: showing Moore under pressure and uncomfortable and using this to reveal character. One of the more obvious things we see is that Moore, like most of us, changed over time. An interview with the once-ubiquitous Rona Barrett is like a hostage video, with Moore seemingly terrified and Barrett appallingly clueless—Moore had lost a son, which prompted inevitable comparisons to her Oscar-nominated performance as the icily grief-stricken mother in “Ordinary People” (1980).

James Lipton, the mawkish host of “Inside the Actors Studio,” tortures her further. Moore had an uneven relationship with the media, although in the case of the disastrous musical version of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” which followed Moore’s promising casting opposite Julie Andrews in “Thoroughly Modern Millie” (1967), the critics seem to have been right. Even producer David Merrick can barely defend the show.

“Tiffany’s” marked a low point in Moore’s career, which was like a history of television itself: She was the Hotpoint pixie on the appliance ads, her pregnancy eventually forcing her out of the full-body leotard. She was the voice, and the legs, of David Janssen’s secretary on the mystery series “Richard Diamond, Private Detective”; trained as a dancer, she brought a physical grace and fluidity to everything she did, including some horrible-looking TV specials with the likes of Danny Kaye and Jack Benny. (And not including “Whose Life Is It Anyway,” the protagonist of which is bed-ridden and which won her a special Tony, essentially for being a major TV star who deigned to do a Broadway show.)

But those specials led to “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” which for seven years was among the most popular on TV and the keystone of the legendary Saturday nights on CBS (“All in the Family,” “M*A*S*H,” “MTM,” “The Bob Newhart Show,” “The Carol Burnett Show”). It was an era of appointment TV. And one can’t help thinking how long ago it was.

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