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 fiancĂ©, 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.

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