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James Adolphus’ new HBO documentary Being Mary Tyler Moore begins with an awkward 1966 interview of Moore by producer and talk show host David Susskind.
As Susskind rambles about how Laura Petrie, Moore’s character from The Dick Van Dyke Show, was a “strained idealization” of the American housewife, Moore sits with a big, clearly forced smile, before she finally breaks and launches into a celebration of Betty Friedan and The Feminine Mystique.
Being Mary Tyler Moore
Airdate: May 2023 (HBO)
Director: James Adolphus 2 hours
I’m rather sick of “Being” in the title for both documentaries and scripted stories — as if claiming to capture the essence of a person is shorthand for profundity — but Being Mary Tyler Moore is definitely invested in this sort of clash between superficial appearances and actual “being” when it comes to one of the most beloved and decorated women in TV history.
The documentary doesn’t always provide definitive answers on who Mary Tyler Moore was, but it builds a portrait of her various dichotomies — a feminist icon who didn’t always want to identify as feminist, a very public star who kept aspects of her personal life guarded, an actress who was closely associated with her roles but became the most herself when she dropped out of the public eye, etc. Being Mary Tyler Moore can’t reconcile all the contradictions that went into actually being Mary Tyler Moore, but why would it need to? Portraying a complicated, conflicted woman rising to visibility at a moment when the Hollywood star system still demanded that women be easily compartmentalized is one of several ways the doc persuasively positions Moore’s legacy and influence.
Dichotomies play a big role in the aesthetic Adolphus has chosen. Instead of talking heads, the interview subjects are audio-only, speaking over a wealth of archival footage heavy on clips from The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Mary Tyler Moore Show as well as previously unseen or under-seen photos and footage from the Mary Tyler Moore estate (her third husband, Robert Levine, is an executive producer). There are also many talk show interviews, some enlightening and some as brutally uncomfortable as the Susskind sit-down.
Sometimes the insights affirm the brilliance of the Mary audiences have adored for decades, with key episodes of both shows — “My Blonde-Haired Brunette” for DVD and “Chuckles the Clown” for MTM — showcasing her unmistakable comic brilliance. I could listen to folks like Bill Persky and James L. Brooks and Treva Silverman and Joan Darling sing Moore’s praises for hours. Or I could simply watch both of those shows for hours, since they’re shows that have lost none of their brilliance with the passing of time. The commentary is a little bit hampered by the number of principal figures from the shows who have died in recent years, and there’s no disputing that having Rob Reiner as a proxy for Carl Reiner is limiting (but not disastrously).
There are similar issues when it comes to the interview subjects available for discussion of Moore as a person. Levine and personal friend Beverly Sanders are present to give some insight, but they’re so fiercely protective of Moore’s image that they don’t stray far from the established narrative. A lot of weight is given, for example, to Moore’s stepson John Tinker for more sensitive personal recollections that tend to include a fair amount of speculation. Grant Tinker, Moore’s second husband, passed in 2016 and his absence may be the biggest in the documentary; of all the things I’d have loved more clarity on, Moore’s actual contributions to MTM Enterprises tops the list.
The footage-forward/talking head-free approach is a tough one to get exactly right, and Adolphus doesn’t always nail it. The origins and timing of some of the interviews aren’t always clear. There’s such an over-reliance on certain talk-show interviews — a chat with gossip columnist Rona Barrett in particular — that we almost might as well have just watched those interviews. Quotes from Moore’s industry successors — from Julia Louis-Dreyfus to Rosie O’Donnell to the doc’s producer Lena Waithe — are so sporadically deployed as to verge on pointless. If the documentary hadn’t already proven that Moore was a trailblazer as an actress, producer, political activist and woman — and it absolutely does prove or confirm those things, not that there was any doubt — is there any viewer for whom a single, audio-only affirmation by Reese Witherspoon is going to seal the deal? I doubt it.
The personal, home-movie footage is more revelatory than anything said by an interview subject, especially in the last act of Moore’s life, from her marriage to Levine until her death in 2017. I especially loved the mini-roast at her wedding shower featuring, among other guests, Betty White.
Really, though, I’d have been satisfied if Being Mary Tyler Moore were just TV show clips putting her genius in the spotlight with the bare minimum of context. To watch Laura Petrie and Mary Richards (and Beth from Ordinary People) in action is to invariably come away with boundless respect. Adolphus and his documentary understand that.
Production companies: HBO Documentary Films, Fifth Season, Hillman Grad, The Mission Entertainment, Good Trouble Studios
Director: James Adolphus
Producers: Ben Selkow, James Adolphus, Lena Waithe, Rishi Rajani, Debra Martin Chase, Andrew C. Coles, Laura Gardner
Executive producers: S. Robert Levine, Michael Bernstein, Nancy Abraham, Lisa Heller
Cinematography: James Adolphus
Editor: Mariah Rehmet
Archival Producer: Libby Kreutz
Music: Theodosia Roussos
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