Capturing The Contradictions Of The Groundbreaking Star In A Familiar Documentary Framework

May 28, 2023

Two era-defining sitcom roles prove that in Hollywood, lightning can strike twice. Mary Tyler Moore’s turn as Laura Petrie in “The Dick Van Dyke Show” in the 1960s was followed a decade later with the groundbreaking “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” Going from playing a housewife to a single career woman when second-wave feminism was in full force puts Moore at the center of a conversation about role models and representation—a conversation she wasn’t always comfortable being the face of. “Being Mary Tyler Moore” examines the public versus private details of Moore’s life and trailblazing work via archival footage, interviews, and home movies to crack open the comedy icon’s persona with varying results. 
READ MORE: ‘Being Mary Tyler Moore’ Trailer: HBO Doc Takes A Look At One Of The Most Influential Stars In Television History
Director James Adolphus (“Soul of a Nation”) cuts between Moore’s press appearances and instantly recognizable clips of her work as Mary Richards on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” among numerous other performances that made her a household name. Opening with a clip of Moore in 1966 (the year “The Dick Van Dyke Show” ended) discussing her alignment with ideas put forth by Betty Friedan in “The Feminine Mystique” quickly establishes her role as a feminist icon even if she later distances herself from that particular F-word. Of course, to get to Moore’s thoughts on this subject, we first hear boarish observations made by interviewer David Susskind. There’s no better way of showing how much famous women had to put up with than by diving into the talk show archives. The forced smile on Moore’s face is depressingly familiar, and while this technique isn’t groundbreaking, it does the trick of turning back the clock to when she first rose to fame and what she had to deal with in that time period.
Other than a few sequences in the opening of the two-hour runtime, most of “Being Mary Tyler Moore” takes a linear approach to her story, establishing a complex dynamic with her parents that becomes a recurring theme. Some misnomers about Moore never having any career setbacks in her early days in Hollywood are corrected, and clips from her pre-fame days as the “Happy Hotpoint Appliance Girl” and her first acting roles offer insight into the early days of TV. 
While the documentary offers a commanding overview of the evolution of this business—and Moore’s role within it—there are some oversimplifications about these “firsts.” Yes, Laura Petrie was unlike a lot of the frock-wearing housewife characters. Still, anyone who has seen multiple episodes of “I Love Lucy” will know that Lucy Ricardo (Lucille Ball) wore pants at home as much (if not more) as the signature gingham frock. In fact, “Being Mary Tyler Moore” would make a great double bill with Amy Poehler’s 2022 documentary “Lucy and Desi” in tone and format. They both suffer the same limitations of examining long deceased subjects and opt for the same mix of private and public footage.
Ball’s voice appears in an interview with Moore from the 1960s on her “Let’s Talk to Lucy” radio show (recently turned into a podcast series), offering a fun snapshot and introduction to the man who would become Moore’s second husband. However, it is when Moore recounts a story of Ball stopping by a Dick Van Dyke Show rehearsal unannounced (they filmed at Desilu Studios) that the weight of Ball’s encouragement is revealed. Lucille Ball was not Lucy Ricardo, and Mary Tyler Moore is not Mary Richards (or Laura Petrie), no matter how much viewers might want this to be the case. The contradictions of their public persona versus each actress’ internal struggles are something these two women share, and this exploration of the expectation versus reality dichotomy is when Adolphus gets closest to the “Being” of the film’s title. 
As with “Lucy and Desi,” “Being Mary Tyler Moore” is most revelatory and insightful through its use of home footage. For all the anecdotes shared during sit-down interviews from various decades, nothing works better than watching the layers of Moore’s personality peeled back through recordings when she didn’t need to consider her public persona. It speaks to how comfortable Moore was in her own skin later in life, and the documentary’s best moments occur during a private roast given by Betty White or watching Moore with her horses. When she allows herself to be open to her imperfections and experience self-discovery away from the glare of Hollywood’s limelight, it makes one ache for the struggles she previously endured. 
Getting a complete picture is Adolphus’ goal, and balancing Moore’s inability to say that she was a feminist by the time she played Mary Richards with this freer version of the actress is like jigsaw pieces falling into place. The impact of Moore’s sitcom work is evident, but it’s a treat watching clips from both shows (including the iconic final “Mary Tyler Moore Show” scene) and the different friends, colleagues, and family members who share observations that don’t always gel. Again, this is the dichotomy at play, depending on who speaks, and many of those voices come from beyond the grave via archival clips. However, there is some notably absent input, like her second husband (and the driving force of production company MTM Enterprises), Grant Tinker, who died in 2016. This was a pivotal relationship in Moore’s life, so it’s a shame the only insight Adolphus provides about this time is from other MTM colleagues and her stepson John Tinker, who discusses Moore’s complex relationship with her son.
A slew of other figures, from those who knew Moore to those like Julia Louis-Dreyfus, whose careers were influenced by the star, offer varying insights. But when it comes to her work, it is the team behind “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” who are most compelling. Multiple Emmy Award clips indicate its critical success and the triumph of appointment television (as well as other MTM Enterprise titles like “The Bob Newhart Show”) underscores its broader impact. One stylistic choice by Adolphus that’s a letdown is his cheesy technique depicting Moore’s transitions between projects, which relies too heavily on an old home movie aesthetic that feels too phony. For a documentary that often shows the layers and nuance of the figure at the center, this editing choice pulls viewers out of the story rather than drawing them in. Thankfully, Adolphus doesn’t rely on it too heavily, and even though it is distracting.
“You might just make it after all,” Sonny Curtis croons on the catchy “Mary Tyler Moore Show” theme song. “Being Mary Tyler Moore” ensures there’s no doubt about it in this assessment of Moore’s career. While this doc lacks a few crucial interviews, it nonetheless charts the course of one of ’60s television’s most recognizable stars. For fans of Mary Tyler Moore, James Adolphus’ doc is a must-watch. [B]

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