Friday, July 14, 2023

Mary Tyler Moore: She Turned the World On With Her Smile (but she wasn’t always smiling)

The pandemic re-introduced me to the simple joys of TV’s long-running Mary Tyler Moore Show. From 1970 through 1977,  the nation watched Mary Richards (a smart and attractive single gal with a megawatt smile) at home in Minneapolis, where she toiled in a local TV station’s newsroom while also hanging out with pals and occasionally dating someone who never turned out to be Mr. Right. The description hardly sounds like much, but the show’s writing and its casting were so smart that viewers turned in week after week. At the time, Moore was remembered by sitcom fans as the wife of Dick Van Dyke on his long-running series. The show that bears HER name introduced us to Ed Asner (who went on to play his curmudgeonly Lou Grant character on a fine dramatic series set at an urban newspaper), Ted Knight (as doofus newscaster Ted Baxter). Valerie Harper (as Mary’s lovelorn buddy, Rhoda Morgenstern), Cloris Leachman (as Mary’s ditsy landlady), and the inimitable Betty White (as the station’s s man-hungry “Happy Homemaker”). Tying it all together was plucky Mary: a female maneuvering in a man’s world while trying not to let her natural femininity get quashed.

 Mary Tyler Moore, originally an aspiring dancer, moved from TV commercials to sitcoms with ease. She seemed to have it all, despite a background that was more wine than roses. As made clear in a recent documentary, Being Mary Tyler Moore, alcoholism ran deep in her family. So did early deaths: her sister died of painkillers and alcohol at age 21; her brother succumbed to kidney cancer at 47; her only son died of an accidental gunshot wound at 24. She herself struggled with diabetes while also managing to surmount years of alcoholism.

 One of the painful ironies of her son’s death was that it came a mere three weeks after the release of her all-time major film role, that of a bereaved mother in Robert Redford’s directorial debut, Ordinary People (1980). The film, based on a novel by Judith Guest, zeroes in on an affluent suburban family rocked by the death of its eldest son in a boating accident. Tyler Moore played a woman whose considerable social charm masks a rigidity that makes her unable to show compassion toward the younger son (Timothy Hutton) whose guilt for his part in the accident is destroying his life. The film was named Best Picture by the Academy, and Hutton’s youthful performance (he was 20) won him a Supporting Actor Oscar. Tyler Moore was nominated too, in the Lead Actress category, though she lost out to Sissy Spacek for Coal Miner’s Daughter. But the role of Beth Jarrett showed the world she could do far more than be perky.

 There were to be many disappointments in her life, like the last-minute cancellation of a musical version  of Breakfast at Tiffany’s in which she was set to star on Broadway. Her first marriage, at age 18, dissolved quickly. Her second, to TV executive Grant Tinker, with whom she founded the highly successful MTM Enterprises, also ended in divorce. Unexpectedly, she fell for a 29-year-old cardiologist, Dr. Robert Levine, when she was in her late forties. To everyone’s surprise, they remained married for 34 years until her death in 2017. He continues to be devoted to her memory,  and was deeply involved with the making of the documentary film. The doc contains frank interviews with Mary, showing her to be far more thoughtful about her personal lapses than one might guess. It also chronicles her passion for animals and for ever-changing hair-dos.




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