Thursday November 09, 2023
Movie Review: Being Mary Tyler Moore (2023)
Oddly (or not), I thought of James Cagney, a hugely successful actor who enjoyed a 30-year run at the top while being nominated for three Oscars, winning one. But he always thought of himself as “an old song-and-dance man.”
Mary Tyler Moore was a hugely successful comedianne who enjoyed a 20-year run at the top of the TV sitcom world, remaking the role of women on television and really in the world. She was nominated for lead actress in a comedy series 10 times, winning six; and yet, near the end of this doc, in one of those 1980s-era interviews with Rona Barrett or Barbara Walters or whomever, she says, “I will go to my grave thinking of myself as a failed dancer.”
She did keep going back to dance, didn’t she? She kept almost ruining her career with it.
After the successful run of “The Dick Van Dyke Show” (1961-66), the world seemed her oyster. She was young and pretty and funny, “America’s Sweetheart,” and she nabbed the coveted role of Holly Golightly in the “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” musical on Broadway. Except it was a huge bomb—managing only four previews before closing. Then she was cast as Miss Dorothy Brown to Julie Andrews’ “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” which got OK reviews and did OK box office but felt thoroughly dated in the Sgt. Pepper-inflected summer of love. Then she was cast in a bunch of forgettable movies (“Don’t Just Stand There”), or unforgettably awful ones (“Change of Habit,” with Elvis). And there went the oyster.
But! She clawed her way back and became America’s Sweetheart again during the hugely successful run of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” (1970-77). And what did she turn to immediately after that? Song and dance, of course. She starred in “The Mary Tyler Moore Hour,” in which she played Mary McKinnon, star of a variety show, whose backstage dramas lead to a final rousing musical number. It lasted 11 episodes.
Was she hedging her bets? If I give you the sitcom, will you let me do some song and dance? Pretty please?
Why did she work so well in sitcom and not as a dancer? As Laura Petrie and Mary Richards, she was endearing. She was us, but better than us, because she looked like her but seemed like a person. As a dancer, she seems like a performer. She was trying too hard. There was a need there. During some of these interviews, too. My face hurt watching how much she smiled at Barbara and Rona. I’m like: No, it’s fine. No, you don’t have to turn the world on with that. The world will get along. Relax. It’s OK.
The doc delves into the post-Laura Petrie career difficulties (which I don’t remember) but not the post-Mary Richards’ ones (which I do). No mention of “The MTM Hour.” No mention of the later failed sitcoms: “Mary” (where she plays a fashion writer reduced to advice columnist for a Chicago tabloid); “Annie McGuire” (a politico who marries an engineer); ‘New York News” (she runs a newspaper). They lasted 11, 10 and 13 episodes, respectively.
Instead, we get personal stuff. Mom’s alcoholism. Dad’s distance. Her first failed marriage. Her successful marriage to Grant Tinker until it wasn’t. The death of her first son. The death of her brother. Her own alcoholism. Finding true love.
I’m more curious about her run as a dramatic actress—Oscar nom for “Ordinary People,” accolades for “Whose Life Is It Anyway?” on Broadway—and why it didn’t stick. Afterwards, she did one of those Dudley Moore bombs, “Six Weeks,” then it was back to weepy TV movies (“Heartsounds”) and failed sitcoms. Was she offered anything she regretted turning down? Or was not offered much since she was 45? Or did Hollywood not know what to do when America’s Sweetheart became America’s Ice Mom?
We get some great talking heads but as voiceovers; I wouldn’t have minded seeing them, too. Particularly the parade of women for whom Mary Richards meant so much: Julie Louis-Dreyfuss, Katie Couric, Oprah Winfrey. Watching “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” all of them were like: That’s a thing? That kind of career? I can do that? The shot of Oprah seeing Mary arrive on her show, and her jaw dropping, is just lovely: You feel how much Mary means to her. I wanted more of that.
I wanted more of this: During the “MTM,” run, we get footage of producer James L. Brooks attending a feminist conference where Gloria Steinem rakes “MTM” over the coals for not being feminist enough. Yes. Because Mary called Mr. Grant “Mr. Grant.” Brooks was booed for this. And yet this supposedly anti-feminist show inspired the next generation of powerful women. I was reminded of those studies showing how “Will & Grace”—another sitcom many on the left felt wasn’t radical enough—changed people’s perceptions of homosexuality for the better; how it maybe led to Obergefell. The idea being you make change not by haranguing people but by including the progressive or the radical within the context of the palatable—here, sitcom relationships—and you make those relationships intriguing enough and fun enough that people keep inviting them back into their home. Week after week. Year after year.
I would’ve liked a discussion of that.
Work of art
“Being Mary Tyler Moore” was directed by James Adolphus, who admits, in a separate interview, that he hadn’t seen much of his subject’s work before he began. Like “The Dick Van Dyke Show”: not one episode. Or “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”: ditto. So why was he chosen for this? No idea. But his lack of background shows.
I was surprised—and shouldn’t have been—by the anti-Semitism of the postwar period. “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” created by Carl Reiner, was originally supposed to star Reiner—but he was too Jewish, it was felt. They needed a WASP fronting the Jewish comedy. Then there was CBS’s reaction to the original idea of making Mary Richards a divorcee. Producers were told there were three no-nos at CBS:
- No divorce
- No moustaches
- No Jews
So we’ve come a long way, baby. In other ways we’ve regressed. At one point someone mentions the Saturday night lineup on CBS during the early 1970s:
- All in the Family
- The Mary Tyler Moore Show
- The Bob Newhart Show
- The Carol Burnett Show
Holy crap. Look at that. That’s a work of art. We did that once.
Mary Tyler Moore was huge when I was growing up in Minneapolis in the 1970s. She was our girl. The show was our show. Look—Lake of the Isles! Lunds! A Fran Tarkenton jersey! All of this meant so much to a place that felt like, well, I guess the modern term is “flyover country.” We weren’t flown over then. Something landed.