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Being Mary Tyler Moore

Directed by James Adolphus
Produced by Lena Waithe, Debra Martin Chase, Andrew Coles, Rishi Rajani, James Adolphus, Laura Gardner, and Ben Selkow
With: the voices of James L. Brooks, Rob Reiner, Treva Silverman, Beverly Sanders, Ronda Rich, John Tinker, Edward Asner, James Burrows, Bill Persky, Robert Levine, Rosie O’Donnell, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Katie Couric
Cinematography: James Adolphus
Editing: Mariah Rehmet
Music: Theodosia Roussos
Runtime: 119 min
Release Date: 26 May 2023
Aspect Ratio: 1.37 : 1
Color: Color
The opening moment of James Adolphus' HBO documentary Being Mary Tyler Moore is a clip of the always-poised TV star on the David Susskind show in the mid-60s post-Dick Van Dyke Show. The boorish Susskind asks her if she viewed her character Laura Petrie as an idealized American housewife. When she answers in the negative, Susskind uses the opportunity of his own question to launch into a comically misogynistic diatribe against the character. It's one of the funniest clips I've ever seen in this type of archival doc—I don't think I've laughed as hard in a cinema watching a documentary since Rodger & Me. Susskind just goes on and on and can't let it go, much as Mary clearly wants him to. In the end, she turns the tables on him by eloquently connecting his question and her status in the industry to the then recently published book The Feminine Mystique by feminist icon Betty Friedan.

This opening TV clip is the perfect way to launch a career retrospective that covers its often illusive subject with depth, humour, and irony. Mary Tyler Moore was a trailblazer for women in the 1960s and 1970s, yet she was not comfortable labelling herself as a feminist and received a lot of pushback from prominent second-wave activists like Gloria Steinem. Existing at the forefront of single, career-focused female representation made her a beloved role model for independent working women and a target for both conservatives and feminists. Thus, Moore was a textbook example of a female trendsetter who was going to be both loved and hated because of what she stood for as much as for who she was. She navigated the rough waters of celebrity with tremendous grace. Though beloved by those who worked closely with her, she was labelled by many others as an ice queen who was nothing like the sunny characters she played. In the vintage interviews that provide the spine of this picture, we learn how she navigated her personal struggles and tragedies and how they affected the ways in which she was perceived.

Adolphus constructs the movie entirely from archival footage strung together with contemporary, audio-only, interviews with Mary's peers, coworkers, family and friends. This simple technique makes this one of the most enjoyable and informative show-biz docs I've seen in a while. We learn about Mary primarily from her own words in long-form TV appearances she made as herself like the one with Susskind and a particularly illuminating one with the usually frivolous gossip columnist Rona Barrett. These one-on-one interview clips are given space to play out and are contextualized by the brief audio interviews we hear from those who knew what was going on for Mary at the times being discussed. Thus the film is always grounded in the period it's chronologically covering—first the '60s, then the '70s, all the way through the last thirty-five years of her life. We hear briefly from a few women in comedy, acting, and broadcasting, like Rosie O’Donnell, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Katie Couric, about how they were inspired by Mary. But it is significant that these audio clips exist only to remind us what a tremendous influence Moore was, not to justify her importance to modern viewers because of who she blazed a trail for.

The desire of many modern documentarians to reinvent the wheel when it comes to the visual presentation of interviews usually feels like filmmakers who are more interested in themselves than their subjects, or a cover for the fact that their subjects aren't worthy of a feature-length film. I have no idea if Adolphus' decision to limit his movie to just clips and audio was aesthetic, budgetary, a result of being made during COVID-19, or because most of his interview subjects are of advanced age. Maybe it was all of the above. No matter. The lack of contemporary talking heads, zippy animated graphics, and famous people singing Mary's praises, enables the archival footage to speak for itself. The clips from the Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore Shows prove that her comedic timing, chemistry with her co-stars, and brilliance as a solo performer were second to none. And, just like the brilliant writing on those shows, neither her characterizations nor performance style nor iconic fashion choices have dated in the slightest (quite an amazing thing that even her hairstyles from the mid-1970s don't look out of date). At 119 minutes, the picture may feel a bit long to those used to the fast pace this type of documentary has sped up to in recent decades. But I appreciated the time spent, even in the last half hour of the film which focuses less on her celebrity and more on her third marriage and work as an advocate for diabetes research.

Being Mary Tyler Moore insightfully captures the dichotomy between the effervescent character we watched (and many of us fell in love with) on TV, and the person who actually had to be Mary Tylor Moore. Without ever having to spoon-feed the viewer, the film showcases the contrasts within this highly public star who shielded her personal life from public scrutiny as much as possible, in ways that feel genuinely relatable to those of us whose lives couldn't be more different from Mary Tyler Moore's. It is a moving and winning portrait of the woman, her career, and her legacy.

Twitter Capsule:
James Adolphus' first-rate career-retrospective doc about the iconic TV trailblazer eschews talking-heads or reliance on contemporary figures talking about how much they were inspired and just lets the archival clips tell the story.