Mary Tyler Moore: An appreciation

Many of us are still mourning the death of actress Mary Tyler Moore on Wednesday at the age of 80. We have an appreciation now from our critic David Edelstein:

Since Wednesday, when Mary Tyler Moore died at age 80 from the ramifications of Type 1 diabetes, her signature song has been everywhere, and everyone’s been thinking that the smile that turned the world on is no more -- and maybe that all our frowns combined have turned it off.

To smile again, all you need is to see her in “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” where she’s fresh as a daisy. The partnership is gorgeous, Dick Van Dyke’s floppy, happy-go-lucky style anchored by Moore’s ever-so-slight brittleness -- that jumpy, feline quality that made her look so right in those catsuit-like Capri pants.

Laura Petrie Dick Van Dyke Show by Jeff X on YouTube

But it was, of course, “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” which ran from 1970 to 1977, that made her a pop-culture icon. And many people have called her character, Mary Richards, an inspiration: an independent, assertive woman in an office full of men.

From “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” (1970). MTM/CBS

But it wasn’t that simple. She was only assertive after a protracted and very funny internal battle. You see her thinking, is it nice? Is it feminine to challenge the male status quo? Will Mr. Grant blow up at her? That march into his office to speak up for herself is plainly terrifying.

Mary’s dithering might seem retro today, but 47 years ago it was perfect for the mainstream network audience -- much easier to like than, say, Bea Arthur’s brassy feminist Maude, who came along in 1972.

In later years, Moore spoke of the difficulty of growing up with alcoholic parents. What I know from women who grew up in similar circumstances is that they learned to be accommodating, to put a smiley face on their feelings so as not to set off Dad or Mom.

I think that’s why Mary Richards feels authentic: Her tremulous persona isn’t just a shtick, it’s rooted in something real.

Three years after “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” went off the air, Robert Redford gave Moore permission in the film “Ordinary People” to turn off her smile, to be the icy, non-empathetic, over-defended person Moore suspected she really was. It must have been terribly challenging and also terribly liberating, and subversive.

Ordinary People (3/7) Movie CLIP - We Never Had a Pet (1980) HD by Movieclips on YouTube

Moore’s big movie career never happened. As she aged, it got harder to recycle the Mary Richards persona, and when she tried to go against that image in TV movies like “Like Mother, Like Son” (a.k.a. Mary Richards murders Edith Bunker), she often went over the top.

There was one glorious exception: David O. Russell’s 1996 psycho-farce “Flirting With Disaster,” in which she plays a wildly selfish rhymes-with-rich and use all her comic smarts.

The Help of a Good Bra - Flirting with Disaster (1/12) Movie CLIP (1996) HD by Movieclips on YouTube

I’ll always go back, though, to those twin peaks of situation comedy, where Mary Tyler Moore turned her own neuroses into hilarious ballets of despair and self-discovery that will never, ever lose their luster. 

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