January 25, 2017

Mary Tyler Moore, Trailblazer

Mary Tyler Moore meant a great deal to a lot of people. Moore, an actress and activist who appeared in two classic situational comedies—The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-66) and Mary Tyler Moore (1970-77) and gave an Oscar-nominated performance in the sobering family drama Ordinary People (1980)—died today, at the age of 80. She had a tough life: a long struggle with alcoholism, diagnosis of Type 1 diabetes at the age of 33, the heartbreaking loss of her only son Richie, who accidentally shot himself when he was 24. So while she projected a big smile—and won our hearts—on the small screen, Mary was going through a lot.

Moore’s eponymous show, in which she played the plucky Mary Richards (tossing her hat up into the sky as if she owned the world) gave us a model of how a woman could have a fulfilling life without being married, in this case, working in a Minneapolis newsroom. Moore, I don’t think, ever set out to become a feminist icon, but she was certainly in the right place at the right time. Except for That Girl, no situational comedy had ever focused on a single woman having a career. Of course, MTM often centered around Mary’s search for a husband, but as the show progressed, so did Mary. She never does get married on the show, and in the final episode, she’s okay with it: She’s found a sense of purpose in her work, and doesn't necessarily need to be a wife and mother to be happy. 

But even in episode one, “Love Is All Around,” Mary’s making bold choices, navigating uncharted territory. When her third-rate fiancé, who’s a doctor named Bill, shows up at Mary’s new apartment in Minneapolis, with flowers he stole from a sick kid at the hospital, Mary dumps him. And she’s not quite sure it’s the right move. You can almost hear Bill and everyone else saying, “Wait a minute…What else will you do with your life?” But Mary’s got an idea, or maybe just a faint glimmer of an idea, that she’s going to make it. 

I discovered Mary Tyler Moore, and consequently, Mary Tyler Moore, because of Nick-at-Nite. Every summer when I was a kid (or so it seems in my memory), Nick-at-Nite hosted marathons of some of the best sitcoms from the 70s: Taxi and Welcome Back, Kotter and WKRP in Cincinatti and, of course, Mary Tyler Moore. My parents had watched the show when it originally aired from 1970 to 1977, and I’m sure they were the ones to turn it on and say, “Here, watch this. You’ll like it.” 

Most sitcoms are disposable, which is one of the reasons people like them. And while Mary Tyler Moore is certainly a very sitcommy show, it remains beloved because of the characters and their deepening relationships, and because of the bold choices it made. As the show went on, we fell in love with these fictional people created by Moore and her co-stars. Never before had a show immersed us so wholly into the worlds of three women-friends: Mary and her bestie Rhoda (Valerie Harper), who lived upstairs in a little attic studio, and the neurotic landlady Phyllis (Cloris Leachman), who lived downstairs with her never-seen husband Lars and her daughter Bess, who's about as sad-looking as Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh, until Mary comes along. As Valerie Harper put it: Mary was the girl you wanted to be, Rhoda was the girl you probably were, and Phyllis was the girl you were afraid you’d become.

It was 1970, after all, so why not create a character like Phyllis? A partially-liberated, clearly leftist, educated woman, who still found herself living within the confines of a more traditional role as wife and mother. She had certain things that Mary lacked—financial stability, an advanced degree, a certain mad confidence—but she was also a nut, and someone so starved for love that she practically forced herself on Mary and Rhoda. Rhoda, on the other hand, was a girl you could be friends with: self-deprecating, witty as all get out, and fashionable (nobody rocks a head scarf like her). Mary fell somewhere in between these too, balancing their extremes, perhaps, but also acquiring a little of the personality dust that occasionally sprinkled off of them and onto her. Because Mary Richards was, ostensibly, the straight man, letting everyone else be funny around her. 

That’s not to say that Moore couldn’t be funny herself. In one of my favorite moments in the show, Mary puts on a green dress designed by a prostitute who she’s been trying to help out (they met in prison; it’s a long story about Mary refusing to reveal a source for a news article). The dress has more holes in it than a block of Swiss cheese, and Lou, Mary’s conservative, much-older boss (played by the great Ed Asner) has just unexpectedly arrived. When Mary opens the door, she kind of hangs on it, striking a pose, and says, “Hi, big fella,” with bedroom eyes and a delightfully mock-seductive voice. 

Mary, so respectful and rule-following in Season 1, has emerged a bold, funny, sexy, assertive, yet tender woman by the end of the show. She hasn’t lost her femininity, which is something chauvinists always accused strong women of doing; she’s gained a sense of confidence in herself, something men always had and therefore never missed. That confidence is the actress’s legacy. Without Mary Richards, there is no Murphy Brown, no Liz Lemon or Leslie Knope, maybe even no Selina Meyer. (The relationships between Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy, and Leslie Knope and Ron Swanson, emerged directly from the wonderful friendship that develops between Mary and her boss, Lou.) 

When I was a kid, I remember frequent arguments with friends (and even adults) about how there were “no funny women.” There’s an episode of 30 Rock in which Liz has a similar argument with Tracy: as she begins naming every funny actress or comedian she can think of, Liz becomes angry, bemused that she has to make such a list for Tracy. But I think we can all take a lesson from Mary: You don’t have to prove anything to anyone. Just go do your thing, and, to paraphrase Amy Poehler, don’t worry about whether they like it. 

With that, I’ll leave you with six Mary Tyler Moore recommendations:

#6 Ordinary People (1980) Moore's character in this movie is the antithesis to Mary Richards: Beth Jarrett, a Chicago housewife who’s lost one son and despises the other because he's just like her. The film, which was directed by Robert Redford, won the Best Picture Oscar and features a fine performance from Timothy Hutton, as Conrad, who can’t seem to connect with his mom. Moore’s performance as Beth is icy cold and almost inhuman, and of course, because she lost her own son that year, weirdly prophetic.

#5 Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967) After The Dick Van Dyke Show, Moore went to the movies, with little success. Thoroughly Modern Millie is a Julie Andrews vehicle set in 1922, all about modern women cutting their hair short and doing whatever the hell they want to. It’s too long and it’s rather ridiculous (there’s a subplot about a boarding house in which the young female tenants are being sold into white slavery by their elderly, spinster landlady!), but I adore this movie. Moore doesn’t particularly stand out—she’s too waifish and fluttery—but it’s worth checking out for fans of her work.

#4 The Mary Tyler Moore Show: Season 3, Episode 1, “The Good Time News” (1972) Under pressure from the networks to put more women on the air, WJM gives Mary the opportunity to appear on camera. But while she’s delivering an opinion about overpopulation, the obnoxious anchorman Ted Baxter (Ted Knight) keeps heckling her, until a flustered Mary erupts on camera and tells him to shut up. An important episode in the show because it charts Mary’s growth as a feminist and the show’s move away from episodes that asked the increasingly less interesting question, “Whom will Mary date today?” 

#3 The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-66). I'm not as familiar with Dick Van Dyke, but it's an equally beloved show, one that introduced us to Mary Tyler Moore, playing Laura Petrie, the Lucy-like wife of Rob (Van Dyke). She was a housewife who could easily be transformed into a girl Friday, just as funny and smart as the boys. What's more, this show is still every bit as funny as it was in the 1960s. I can hear Laura now: "Oh, Rob!" 

#2 The Mary Tyler Moore Show: Season 4, Episode 20, “Better Late…That’s a Pun…Than Never” (1974) Some of the best moments of comedy for Mary Tyler Moore emerge when she’s crying, and in Season 4, she sobs to Lou, “I want to come back! I want to come back!” after getting fired for writing a jokey obituary that accidentally gets read on the air.

#1 The Mary Tyler Moore Show: Season 7, Episode 22, “The Last Show” (1977). The group hug; Mary reuniting with Rhoda and Phyllis one last time (they’d gone off to do their own shows in 1974 and 1975 respectively); the WJM gang singing “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,” as they exit the newsroom for the last time, and Mary, framed in the door way, turns around, gazing at this little room where so much life happened, taking a breath, and turning out the lights.

January 23, 2017

"Split" seeks to understand its killer, but it's a less-than-satisfying horror thriller.

M. Night Shyamalan’s last film, The Visit (2015), gave me such a kick, that I found myself eager to see his next, Split, which opened this weekend. But where The Visit was inventive and playfully scary, Split is almost moralistic, and develops a rather peculiar message about empowerment that doesn’t quite work. In Split, three teenage girls are kidnapped at a shopping mall and held prisoner in some dark, windowless, labyrinthine place, by a man with 23 distinct personalities (played by James McAvoy). When he visits his idealistic New York headshrinker (played by Betty Buckley, who's wonderful in this, and whom horror fans will remember as the well-meaning gym teacher in the original Carrie) he presents himself as Barry, a likably awkward neurotic with a penchant for fashion. But of course, Barry is the docile cover for a whole menagerie of malicious personas, two of which have been “banned” from the sessions because they seem to be plotting a takeover of Barry’s mind.

Buckley’s character, Dr. Karen Fletcher, is an expert on Barry’s particular disorder, but she’s become rather precious about it: She lectures—via Skype—to a group of students in Paris about her patients achieving a higher form of existence through this disorder, which, she argues, is a kind of gift achieved only through intense personal trauma, a blessing wrought by a curse. Dr. Fletcher claims to have witnessed patients who can be blind with one identity but sighted with another; she claims another patient has one personality who’s diabetic, while the rest of his personalities are not. In essence, Dr. Fletcher argues, the mind has more control over our bodies than we realize, and our brains have the power to transform us into superhuman gods, if we know how to harness that power. (You can probably see where this is going.)

I don’t ever need to see Split again, but it is a diverting thriller despite its flaws, and to Shyamalan’s credit, he resists the urge to turn the movie into a police procedural (Law and Order and CSI et al have permanently established those kinds of stories as the exclusive domain of television.) Indeed, I kept waiting for a bunch of New York detectives to enter the movie as supporting characters, but they never did. We’re either in the lair with the three girls, Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), and Marcia (Jessica Sula), with Barry (and his various other personalities), or with Dr. Fletcher, who gradually pieces together the fact that something is very, very wrong with her prized patient. (More wrong than usual, that is.)

But Split isn’t nearly as scary or crazy as it thinks it is. Shyamalan has created a monstrous character but isn’t willing to show him at his worst, because he’s so horrifying. (There’s none of the dread we feel, for example, when we see Buffalo Bill in his lair, making dresses out of skin, in Silence of the Lambs.) McAvoy tries very hard, and yet he’s never scary enough, or threatening enough, because Shyamalan wants to humanize him, so he creates another persona called “The Beast”, another identity that is welling up inside of him, one more terrifying and destructive than any other. Because Shyamalan is priming us for the Beast’s big entrance, he must restrain all of Barry’s other personalities (including the ominously docile Miss Patricia, who’s British and wears shawls and long dresses). Shyamalan attempts to grapple with a person who’s both good and evil, but his strategy doesn’t work, because by the end, he’s exhausted our patience.

The strongest scenes in the movie are the first two, perhaps because they are so compact: We see Claire and Marcia with Claire’s dad, at a restaurant, celebrating Claire’s birthday, while Casey, whom Claire has reluctantly invited out of sympathy, stands by a window, staring into the distance. In that scene, Claire bemoans having to invite Casey at all, but then congratulates herself on not being a monster, the kind of mean girl who excludes the weird kid from the party. Then, in the next scene, when the girls are kidnapped, Shyamalan structures it perfectly, resisting the urge to make us jump, instead letting the terror gradually wash over us: As Claire’s unsuspecting father loads gifts into the trunk of the car, the girls get inside: Claire and Marcia in the back, distracted by their phones, and Casey in the front, feeling alone but not being alone. Then a man gets into the driver’s seat: Barry, who’s presumably disposed of the father. The girls in the back don’t even notice right away; it’s Casey who realizes what’s happening, and, in a surprising and fascinating choice, Casey is given a moment to escape but chooses not to.

Casey, we learn through flashback, has suffered in life, as has Barry. And it’s that suffering that both unites them and ultimately empowers Casey to defeat Barry. Split elevates the damaged kid as a kid who has felt the broken reality of the world, unlike the Claires and Marcias of the world, who have lived sheltered, comfortable lives with stable parents. But Split is grasping for profundity in the most obvious way. Perhaps Shyamalan is congratulating himself for resisting cheap scares, and perhaps he’s apologizing for his depiction of people with psychological disorders as mad killers, by elevating the abused child as some kind of hyper-sensitive god. But he’s also given a scientific answer for why all those other movie killers—the Michael Myerses and Jason Voorhees of the world—could never be killed for good; they keep coming back for more teenagers. Perhaps those psycho-killers also possessed this “gift” of transforming into superhuman personas. Shyamalan has concocted a pseudo-scientific explanation for these movie killers, including his own, forgetting that what we don’t understand is always more terrifying than what we do.

January 12, 2017

There's no denying the charm of "Hidden Figures"

Zora Neale Hurston once observed that the black woman was “the mule of the world,” to paraphrase one of the characters in her masterpiece, Their Eyes Were Watching God. It’s not hard to imagine the three women at the center of Hidden Figures being the generation after Janie Crawford, the strong-willed, passionate heroine of Hurston’s novel. Janie has poetry inside her, and she longs for something that she can never fully put into words, although it’s clear by the end that that something is her own independence. Her grandmother was a slave, her mother ran off right after she was born, and Janie, who marries three times and only once experiences real marital happiness (even though the marriage is fraught with turmoil and ends tragically), struggles to maintain what little freedom she has acquired; but she forges on, as if driven by a vision. 

Each of the women in Hidden Figures has a vision too, and that vision drives the movie, making it smarter and sharper than its feel-good exterior might otherwise suggest. It’s 1961 and the space race beckons. NASA has just acquired its first computer (which takes up a whole room and doesn’t even work properly), but until the IBM can be of any use, there are human computers, most of them black women: Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), who yearns to be an engineer; Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer), who teaches herself how to program the computer and fights for the jobs of the other women in her department, often butting heads with a waspy superior played by Kirsten Dunst; and Katherine Goble (the movie is ultimately her story) (Taraji P. Henson), who’s shy and demure and scatter-brained but also kind and determined and whip-smart, fights for her spot at the top, with the boys, making enemies but also making history: her calculations will enable John Glen (who’s played by Glen Powell) to get into space and back to earth safely.

How did we go 56 years without knowing about Katherine Goble, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson? In a recent interview, Octavia Spencer said that stories get told when the time is right, and the time for these stories has never been more urgent. We shouldn’t be fooled by the idea that “things are better now,” rather we should wake up to what “things” we can do to make the world a more civil, more compassionate place for our fellow humans. 

It’s tempting to feel self-congratulatory for liking this movie, and for cheering on these heroic women, as they encounter racism and sexism in their lives. Movies and novels about race often create super-evil villains for us to project our hate onto; these monsters are so different from ourselves, that we don’t have to think about our own racism. “I’m not like this,” we may be thinking. And, “I see how wrong it is” that their white female bosses refer to them condescendingly as “girls,” or that one of Goble’s male counterparts shoves a trash can into her arms because he assumes she’s the janitor, or that Goble is forced to walk half a mile to the colored ladies’ room and drink from a special “colored” coffee pot. 

But Hidden Figures confronts us with our own racism, if we’re watching closely enough. There are no super-evil villains, although Jim Parsons, playing one of the catty, jealous white male math wonks (whom Goble repeatedly outperforms), comes closest to that kind of character. And Dunst, who harbors such an ice-queen temperament that she could freeze the inside of a volcano, gives you the feeling that she’d like to slap Dorothy Vaughn. “I’m not against you,” she says to Vaughn, and Vaughn replies—with Octavia Spencer’s trademark honey-coated sass, “I’m sure you think that’s true.” 

Yes, Hidden Figures shies away from the more horrifying aspects of 1960s racial tensions. The racism of Hidden Figures won’t leave you scarred for life, and it won’t traumatize your children. But the movie’s charms, namely the performances of its three leads, have their own kind of power to, perhaps, make people stop and think. The film has concocted an admittedly  complicated stew of ambitions in telling a historical tale about three black women competing in a white man’s world. That director Theodore Melfi takes the 9 to 5 approach is no sin: he’s made a movie you can take your racist old relatives to, one that might actually change their minds, and their hearts.

And even if Hidden Figures sometimes feels like a TV-movie trapped in a Hollywood prestige picture’s body, its three stars have enough electricity to fill the screen. That’s ultimately what makes this movie work. It’s the sheer unapologetic audacity of these women, and the embodied confidence of the actresses who play them, that holds us glued to the screen for two hours. When Mary Jackson (Monáe) enters a Virignia courthouse, requesting to be admitted to an all-white school so she can take night classes (to become an engineer), her poise and dignity and wit overpower even the judge himself, who’s clearly gunning for her at the beginning, until she charms him into giving her what she wants. It’s not unlike Hedey Lamarr (Harvey Korman), the con artist-district attorney in Blazing Saddles, convincing the bumbling governor (Mel Brooks) that appointing a black sheriff will secure his place in the annals of history. Mary Jackson isn’t a con artist, though; she’s a revolutionary.

Above all else, the movie is funny, and even though life for black people was incredibly hard during this time in our history, the film's refusal to paint their lives as somehow empty vacuums of oppression is just as important as those movies that dwell more deliberately on the tragic and violent things they endured. When Hidden Figures cuts to the home lives of these women—raising their kids, dating, talking to their husbands, eating at church picnics—it’s giving us a fuller picture, not just the sorrow and the struggle but also the joy and the heart. 

Also starring Kevin Costner, giving one of his strongest performances, as the head of NASA; and Mahershala Ali as Katherine’s charming Navy suitor. Written by Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi.