An Insightful Look at a Trailblazer
May 26, 2023
Documentaries are daunting. There’s a rush of excitement that’s immediately followed by hesitation when a documentary on someone as influential and original as Mary Tyler Moore is announced. It’s thrilling to pull back the curtain on an icon in a retrospective film, especially someone as private as Moore, but at the same time, it’s also pretty stressful. Will the creatives who are bringing this legend to life do them justice? More importantly, will this be more than “just another celebrity documentary” that are becoming more and more common?
The short answer in this case? Yes. It’s evident right away that the people responsible for Being Mary Tyler Moore, a two-hour documentary about the personal and professional life of comedic-leaning actress Mary Tyler Moore, cared deeply about its subject. Director James Adolphus (who’s also an Emmy-winning producer and three-time Peabody Award-winning cinematographer) and producers Lena Waithe, Debra Martin Chase, and Dr. Robert Levine (Moore’s husband when she passed) have a reverence and fascination with Moore, similar to how the entire country did during the height of her career. Considering how much Mary Tyler Moore meant—and still means—to so many people across the world, it’s kind of bizarre it took this long for a documentary to be made about her in the first place.
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Related: The 10 Most Essential Episodes of ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’
The Swift Pace Leaves You Wanting More
Image via HBO
Being Mary Tyler Moore moves very quickly while still doing a thorough job of capturing Mary’s extensive and complicated life on and off screen. It’s rare that two hours of anything flies by as fast as this documentary does. The trend lately with film and TV projects, whether it be fiction or nonfiction, is to milk a story or topic for all its worth, often stretching what could (and should) have been a compelling film into something with multiple parts or episodes. It’s admirable that the filmmakers didn’t go down this path, as the film maintains its glimmer from the start all the way through the credits, though there surely has to be gold on the cutting room floor. The portion on The Mary Tyler Moore Show alone, for example, felt like it deserved its own documentary, given its cultural impact in Hollywood and the way it changed the perception of women’s place in society.
The entire film is made up of interviews, clips, and voice-over from people close to and who admire Moore. Every choice feels deliberate and strategic as these interviews and clips effectively showed off her uber-pleasant, absurdly charming persona that the country fell head over heels in love with, as well as highlighting her unapologetic outlook and opinions on how women ought to be allowed to live their lives however they damn well please. She bumped up against misogynistic interviewers who seemed baffled by her belief that women deserve to have careers just as much as men, but impressively never kowtowed to people who ardently disagreed with her in fear of tarnishing the persona that had made her so beloved. Disagreements didn’t have to get nasty, in fact, Mary’s composure and confidence when speaking up about women’s need for more agency is what made her points that much more effective and obvious.
A bold stylistic choice that pays off quite well is how those speaking about Mary and her influence on them never appear on screen. Even though he’s done interviews about the documentary, Moore’s widower Dr. Robert Levine, as well as Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Bernadette Peters, Reese Witherspoon, and Treva Silverman, one of the lead writers on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, never appear on camera. Sticking to strictly voice-overs is a smart move as it keeps the spotlight on Moore and the documentary moving.
The Documentary Explores Mary’s Highs and Lows
Image via HBO
When documenting the life of someone as beloved and celebrated as Mary Tyler Moore, it would be easy (and frankly understandable) to only cover the career highs. After all, that’s what everyone wants to see, right? Adolphus was sure to give this documentary a complete, well-rounded feel by not shying away from Mary’s struggles, both professionally and personally.
Following the unimaginable success of The Dick Van Dyke Show, the program that catapulted Moore into our homes and hearts, she starred in the Broadway musical version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s and was critically and commercially brutalized for her performance. Not only was this a massive career setback for the actress, but was also one for TV actors who had an interest in theater. If Moore couldn’t hack it, well, then nobody could. The film also spends a lot of time on her personal obstacles, whether it be her surprising diabetes diagnosis or her multiple marriages and how that impacted people’s view of her.
Conversely and more obviously, the film emphasizes the success of The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, both of which would not have worked (or in the case of the latter, even happened) if it weren’t for Moore’s talent or willingness to speak up for what she wanted for her characters. She wanted Laura Petrie to be just as interesting and independent as Dick Van Dyke’s Rob, shaking up the tired American housewife trope that plagued sitcoms of the era. One extremely controversial and revolutionary change that Moore made to her character was that she convinced the studio to let Laurie wear pants, something that CBS didn’t even allow at the time. Another part of the documentary that was refreshing was how it made a point to explain how everyone who worked with Moore appreciated how she carried herself and the production, something that is usually only talked about when it’s the other way around.
‘Being Mary Tyler Moore’ Gives Fans What They Want
Image via HBO
Above all, Being Mary Tyler Moore is fun. It’s likely that if you are watching this documentary, Moore means something special to you, and this film is sure to cover the moments that made her and these shows so popular. Fans will be delighted to know that there is close attention paid to Moore’s knack for physical comedy, whether it be her sobs after her hair-dying-gone-very-wrong in The Dick Van Dyke Show or her ill-attempts at stifling uncontrollable laughter at Chuckles the Clown’s funeral on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and how those moments came to be.
Toward the end of the documentary, a family friend says that Mary took the time to look back on and remember those wonderful experiences during her final moments in her hospital bed. In a perfectly poetic ending to such a creatively rich time on this Earth, the friend recalls Mary beaming and saying, “It feels great to remember.” Being Mary Tyler Moore is itself an act of remembering as it reminds us to not only appreciate the moment you are in now, but all those moments, big and small, good and bad, that make you the person you are, and the remarkable woman who paved the way for so many with her spunk and smile.
Being Mary Tyler Moore is available starting May 26 on HBO and Max.
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