Happy-go-lucky Mary Tyler Moore – tossing berets skyward and cheerfully chipping away at the television industry’s glass ceilings; doting on its daffy Rob Petries and then chastising its many grumpy Mr. Grants – is the Mary Tyler Moore most remembered in the wake of her death Wednesday at 80. It’s the statue people visit in downtown Minneapolis.
That’s the Mary we naturally revere most, the comic actress who, first as Laura Petrie in “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and then in her own eponymous sitcom, mastered an uncharted territory that separated early 1960s-style perkiness from a ’70s-style awakening of personal pride. Turning the world on with your smile is one thing; to break barriers, Moore had to do more than be pretty or funny.
But something should also be said of the frostier, big-screen Mary Tyler Moore, the one who followed her success as both a TV star and producer with a risky swerve into a drama so painful that it still causes a lump in the throat whenever it’s on cable. In 1980’s “Ordinary People,” Moore played Beth Jarrett, a mother trying to keep up appearances and suppress her grief after the death of her older son, thereby alienating her surviving teenage son, Conrad (Timothy Hutton), and husband, Cal (Donald Sutherland).
“Tell me the definition of happy,” Beth seethes, when a friend suggests that she cheer up. “But first you better make sure your kids are good and safe, that they haven’t fallen off a horse, been hit by a car, or drown in that swimming pool you’re so proud of.”
Moore earned an Oscar nomination for the role. Sadly (and weirdly), weeks after the movie came out and the accolades began to amass, her only son died of a self-inflicted, accidental gunshot; less than a year later she divorced her second husband, TV network executive Grant Tinker. Even now, watching her in “Ordinary People” is, to me, far more revelatory than watching Laura Petrie sing and dance in her living room or Mary Richards crumble with laughter in a failed attempt to sit quietly through a funeral for Chuckles the Clown. (For such memories, YouTube gives and gives and gives – if your boss isn’t monitoring, you are hereby permitted to while away half a day watching Moore in full sitcom glory.)
In “Ordinary People,” however, we get a sense of a film legend who might have been, if the roles had made themselves available – a difficult ask for any actress in her 40s back then, especially one so recognizable for her TV work. Robert Redford, who directed “Ordinary People,” approached Moore not long after her “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” ended, saying he intended to adapt Judith Guest’s novel into a film and that he always saw Moore in the role of Beth.
“He went on to spend three months auditioning every other actress in town,” Moore recalled in a 2010 interview with the Archive of American Television project. Once she had the part, Moore didn’t really have to dig all that far to access an empathy for the character’s pain and tendency to shut down her own emotions.
“I saw (Beth) as very reminiscent of my own life,” she said. “It was disappointing to me, though, how many people would say of Beth Jarrett, ‘Boy, she was a bitch.’ Because I don’t see her as that. I see her as a victim. I see her as a woman who wanted to do the right thing and was taught how to do the right thing and never let [feelings] spontaneously erupt.”
It would be another decade or so before Moore’s fans and the media became accustomed to an edgier, less perky side of the Mary we thought we knew. When Vanity Fair photographed her and Van Dyke for a 1995 magazine spread, one of the photographs playfully imagined the Petries as late-in-life S&M aficionados, with Moore clad in shiny dominatrix latex astride Van Dyke’s back. It’s a fate that awaits anybody who stays famous long enough in America – warding off aging with sexual innuendo. (Ask the expert, Moore’s 95-year-old friend and former co-star, Betty White.)
As Moore appeared in a few other films and attempted to jump-start another TV series or two (or three or four), one more memorable film role came in David O. Russell’s unheralded 1996 comedy classic “Flirting With Disaster,” in which she played Pearl Coplin, the overbearing adoptive mother of Mel (Ben Stiller), a young man who sets off on a misguided journey to find his biological parents. “Why does he have to do the ‘Roots’ thing?” Pearl laments to her husband, Ed (George Segal). “Aren’t we good enough parents?”
Years ago, when Moore and her cardiologist husband were guests at the State Department’s annual dinner for Kennedy Center honorees, I happened to be seated at the same table. No famous person is ever thrilled to have the working press join them for a fancy meal, but Moore patiently rolled with my need to tell her that I loved her more as an icy mother than as America’s liberated sweetheart. I told her to therefore feel no pressure to turn me on with her smile. A cold shoulder would do just fine – which is pretty much what I got. The world’s most cheerful version of a cold shoulder.
In 1995, when she was promoting her autobiography, “After All,” Charlie Rose asked her: “What is the biggest misperception of you? Seeing you as Mary Richards?”
“Maybe,” Moore replied. “And yet I’m not so different from her. I think there’s a lot about us that is similar. We’re earnest, we mean well. We have a good sense of humor – she had much better writers than I do. And her problems were always solved in 24 minutes. … I’m a little more insecure and fearful, a little paranoid sometimes.”
“Happy?” Rose offered.
“What is happy?” asked the woman credited for spreading so much of it around.