Film & TV

Film Review: ‘Being Mary Tyler Moore’: Portrait of an American Treasure

BY Michael Clark TIMEMay 25, 2023 PRINT

TV-PG | 2h 00min | Documentary, Biography | 26 May 2023 (USA)

With the possible exception of Lucille Ball, no American woman has had a greater impact on the generations of comediennes who followed in her wake quite as much as Mary Tyler Moore.

Known mostly for her roles as a spunky homemaker on “The Dick Van Dyke Show” (“Van Dyke”) and an unassuming TV producer on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” (“Tyler Moore”), Moore is forever referred to as the “girl next door” but was also a driven trailblazer whose life was marked with many professional and personal ebbs and flows.

In “Being Mary Tyler Moore” (“Being”), his first solo effort as a feature director, three-time Peabody Award-winning cinematographer James Adolphus delivers an awe-inspiring, cradle-to-grave biographical documentary of Moore.

Taking many storytelling gambles along the way (and winning most of the time), Adolphus takes exactly two hours to deliver volumes of information that most filmmakers couldn’t do half as efficiently with twice as much running time.

Hostile Interview

Taking the sometimes iffy out-of-sequence route, Adolphus opens with a snippet of a 1966 interview of Moore conducted by David Susskind shortly after “Van Dyke” had wrapped its fifth and final season. The condescending, somewhat hostile Susskind asks Moore if she thought her character (Laura Petrie) was correctly presenting the typical American housewife or merely “projecting” a fantasy version of the same.

Tilting her head just slightly and pausing a beat or two before retorting, Moore, smiling but clearly taken aback by the barbed tone of the question, said that there are many different versions of “housewife,” and all of them should be “a human first, a woman second, and a wife and mother third.” Considering the time frame, that’s some pretty heady stuff.

At another point in the movie, “Van Dyke” (which aired on CBS) creator Carl Reiner recalled Moore telling him that she would prefer Laura’s wardrobe consist mostly of Capri pants, as she felt that past portrayals of previous sit-com moms doing housework in semiformal dresses was ludicrous, out of date, and passé. Reiner agreed to Moore’s request without a second thought.

The point here is that Moore, with no track record to speak of and operating in a medium ruled mostly by men, made a suggestion that bucked the status quo. She wanted Laura to be modern and reflective of the audience, and it worked like a charm.

"Being Mary Tyler Moore,"
Mary Tyler Moore (C) on the set of “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” from the documentary “Being Mary Tyler Moore.” (HBO Max)

After “Van Dyke” ended, Moore gave both musical theater (“Breakfast at Tiffany’s”) and feature film (“Thoroughly Modern Millie”) a shot. “Breakfast” tanked and although “Millie” mostly succeeded, Moore played second fiddle to lead Julie Andrews.

First Career Reboot

Only after Moore’s appearance on a variety special hosted by Van Dyke did CBS offer her what eventually became “Tyler Moore.” Picking up where she left off five years earlier, Moore (along with show runner James L. Brooks) wanted her character, Mary Richards, to be single with no interest in marriage and primarily concerned with her career.

Despite some resistance, CBS eventually acquiesced, and “Tyler Moore” went on to become one of the most popular and critically acclaimed series in TV history, winning 29 Emmy Awards.

Showing up in regular intervals throughout the documentary are clips from a 1981 interview by Rona Barrett not long after Moore was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for “Ordinary People.” To say that  Moore’s character in the film was the antithesis of Laura Petrie and Mary Richards would be a colossal understatement.

"Being Mary Tyler Moore,"
Mary Tyler Moore during a work session, from the documentary “Being Mary Tyler Moore.” (HBO Max)

Icy, detached, and emotionally distant, Moore’s rendering of a mother suffering from a devastating loss eerily mirrored a recent event in her off-screen life and proved she was capable of doing far more than just light comedy.

Time for Some Me Time

Recognition in “Ordinary People” could have resulted in further big-screen success but it didn’t, yet this turned out to be the personal fulfillment that had largely eluded Moore for most of her adult life. Through an odd twist of fate, she met Dr. Robert Levin, a cardiologist nearly two decades her junior. Their marriage lasted for over 30 years until her death in 2017.

The crowning achievement of “Being” isn’t Moore’s career recap, which most of us all already aware of, but rather the inclusion by Adolphus of the candid passages captured through other interviews, home movies, and stills, the memories shared by her closest friend Beverly Sanders, and the accolades lavished upon her by the many she inspired.

Moore was a complex and imperfect person who was never afraid to portray characters with the same traits. She lived a life that yielded great rewards, but it was also one that included significant devastating setbacks. “Being” offers a near-perfect balance of both.

"Being Mary Tyler Moore,"
The documentary “Being Mary Tyler Moore” shows the actress in a wide range of roles. (HBO Max)

“Being Mary Tyler Moore” will air on HBO Max beginning May 26th.

‘Being Mary Tyler Moore’
Director: James Adolphus
Running Time: 2 hours
MPAA Rating: TV-PG
Release Date: May 26, 2023
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Originally from Washington, D.C., Michael Clark has provided film content to over 30 print and online media outlets. He co-founded the Atlanta Film Critics Circle in 2017 and is a weekly contributor to the Shannon Burke Show on Since 1995, Mr. Clark has written over 4,000 movie reviews and film-related articles. He favors dark comedy, thrillers, and documentaries.
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