Celebrity documentaries often dig up old talk show footage, and early in HBO’s “Being Mary Tyler Moore” we see her interviewed by David Susskind. The exchange reveals both the host’s stubborn assumptions about gender roles and Moore’s polite disinterest in pandering to his line of questioning.
The clip is from 1966, just as “The Dick Van Dyke Show” was drawing to a close. The sitcom made Moore a star playing Laura Petrie, and in Susskind’s estimation, the character is an “idealization of the American wife.” Then he pontificates, just generally, on what he sees as the sad state of matrimony in real life: Walk into any restaurant and “the woman is yakking like crazy and the man has a hurt, bored expression.”
What he fails to realize is that he’s creating that very dynamic in the television studio — except he is the one yakking like crazy while his guest has a hurt, bored expression. He thinks women are only “half-married” if they work outside the home. She gently but firmly pushes back. “Women should be human beings first, women second, and wives and mothers third,” she tells him. “It should fall in that order.”
Moore could turn the world on with her smile. Pioneering and funny. But woe to the person who underestimated her steely intelligence.
Off-screen, she was reserved in ways that differed from her most famous roles, first as Laura Petrie in those pedal pushers (previous to that, housewives appeared only in dresses, and it was a change Moore pushed for) and later as local TV news producer Mary Richards on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”
She had impeccable comedy instincts — full of warmth and vulnerability and class — and I wish the film tried to examine a bit further how she sharpened those talents over the years.
She would switch gears with “Ordinary People” in 1980. It was a departure from what audiences had come to expect, instead playing a brittle, grieving mother who kept her feelings bottled up to preserve her elegant, upscale suburban Chicago facade. But Moore probably had more in common with the character than many realized — maybe not so chilly, but aloof. She kept to herself and wasn’t naturally open and revealing. That’s one of the more interesting revelations of the film.
She was a combination of strength, nervousness and determination, but she didn’t see herself as Mary Richards, independent woman extraordinaire. She was married throughout the show’s run to Grant Tinker (who headed up her production company MTM Enterprises), but the character’s backbone? “That was real,” she says. “That kind of substance and intrinsic dignity of being.”
Directed by James Adolphus (with a raft of producers including Lena Waithe), “Being Mary Tyler Moore” relies on old interviews with Moore, who died in 2017, and new off-camera interviews that Adolphus layers in as voice-overs.
Moore’s father would joke that the family came from impoverished nobility, but her mother struggled with alcoholism and that created instability: “She was most at ease at a party, or giving a party,” Moore says. “Everybody’s good-time best gal. Not the most attuned to parenting that I would have liked. She would start drinking during the day and would not stop until somebody found the bottle and took it away.”
Moore found fame in the 1960s, thanks to “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” but her career faltered after that, including a disastrous musical version of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” on Broadway, and a movie contract that compelled her to appear in less-than-stellar films, including 1969′s “Change of Habit,” as a nun opposite Elvis Presley.
“The Mary Tyler Moore Show” would put her back on top in the 1970s. But when the show ended, so did her marriage to Tinker. Single for the first time in years, she moved to New York at 40, looking for a fresh start.
Maybe she was hoping to run away from problems that had been festering under the California sun. So much of her public persona was rooted in those exquisite manners — there was almost a throwback quality to the way she carried herself — but we learn that, in private, she could become belligerent after a few drinks. It was only in middle age that she acknowledged alcohol was a problem for her, as it had been for her mother.
She would eventually marry again, this time to a doctor named Robert Levine, who is an executive producer here and who provided the personal footage of Moore at home, including that of an informal gathering before her wedding that has the feel of a slumber party, where she’s toasted by good friend Betty White, among others.
Moore’s second act in New York was less about burnishing her celebrity than about a woman finally coming into herself. L.A. can be thrumming with career neuroses — the kind that foster an arrested development, especially if fame hits early and fast.
Maybe relocating was a way to shed all of that and reinvent some ideas she had about herself.
‘BEING MARY TYLER MOORE’
3 stars (out of 4)
Running time: 1:59
How to watch: 8 p.m. ET Friday on HBO (and streaming on Max)