Shaidle Unchained

I Hate Spunk

January 31, 2017

Multiple Pages
I Hate Spunk

“She made a show about how single career women could still have fulfilling lives, with the help of the powerful TV executive she was married to.”

My Facebook friend Tom Forsythe, besides being one helluva Muhammad cartoonist, is also wittier than many pro scribes—including me, dammit. I wish I’d thought of that quip after Mary Tyler Moore died.

Don’t misunderstand me: Moore was an incandescent performer, and almost more impressive, she’d also endured tragedies and troubles—alcoholism, diabetes—without becoming a public nuisance.

It was that former affliction that handily allowed me to exhibit an addict’s perverse snobbery about her drug of choice:

Contrast those two rancid potheads Cheech & Chong (I never tired of pointing out) with a couple of drunks, namely Moore and Dick Van Dyke—behold: graceful, lucid, and wholesome, even in prison duds and novelty shackles.

“I was more impressed by Moore’s most famous big-screen characterization, the grieving mother Beth in 1980’s Ordinary People.”

(If Mary Tyler Moore and Dick Van Dyke were alcoholics, mused Adam Carolla last week, “all that says to me is—drink more.”)

As for her fine work, most of her well-meaning obituarists are getting it wrong. The Mary Tyler Moore Show was not, in fact, the first sitcom to center on a single career girl: Marlo Thomas beat her onto the air by four years on That Girl—complete with high-energy, “skipping and twirling down big city streets” opening title sequence and “look out, world!” theme song. (Unlike MTM, Marlo’s show even had a cute logo.)

And contrary to what you might presume, Marlo’s powerful showbiz father, Danny, didn’t cook it up as a vehicle for his daughter. Through her own production company, she was That Girl’s “de facto executive producer.” Whereas, despite its name, MTM Productions was run entirely by Moore’s husband, Grant Tinker.

But of course, way more girls wanted to be Mary Tyler Moore, and more men wanted to date her. Slender and vivacious as she was, no one can imagine Marlo Thomas wearing the “Ugly” Green Dress.

We heard from those girls last week, the women who’d been inspired to pursue broadcasting careers by watching “Mary Richards’” work as a local news producer every Saturday night.

Oprah Winfrey, being the most famous, wealthy, and powerful of them all, even indulged in a shot-by-shot re-creation of MTM’s opening sequence, complete with hat toss. When Winfrey’s crew surprised their boss by getting Moore herself to phone in to her show, mighty Oprah crumbled to pieces. While I couldn’t find this particular clip, I distinctly remember Oprah burbling, quite touchingly, “But why would Mary want to call me?”

Girls who didn’t necessarily dream of having Mary’s job definitely fantasized about having her apartment. “Marytylermooresapartment” became one universally understood word: When I found a cheap but/therefore grotty first apartment in Toronto, my would-be roommate pulled out of our arrangement; “She expected marytylermooresapartment,” tsked my mother.

I certainly didn’t. As I’ve said here before, “Hogan’s Heroes made POW life appear so thrilling yet utterly uninjurious that, while other girls daydreamed about Mary Tyler Moore’s mod Minneapolis bachelor pad, I fantasized about the snug, comradely confines of Stalag 13.”

Long after MTM went off the air, on a business trip to Minnesota, I nevertheless accompanied my female boss on the requisite pilgrimage to marytylermooresapartment, the Victorian 2104 Kenwood Parkway home that played that “role.” (Back when the show was still a going concern, the exasperated owners tried to discourage the crew from filming fresh exterior shots every new season—which simply encouraged more neck-craning tourists—by stretching an “Impeach Nixon” banner below “Mary’s” window.)

Which is kind of funny because Mary Tyler Moore was a lifelong Republican (except for a lapse campaigning for Carter)—a Fox News fan and “libertarian centrist.” An ancestral connection led her to help fund the renovation of Stonewall Jackson’s headquarters. Yet, I didn’t see any of these facts mentioned in the postmortem valentines.

In fact, Moore told PBS in 2013 that she’d been a reluctant symbol of women’s liberation and “did not believe in [feminist Gloria] Steinem’s view that women owe it to themselves to have a career.”

(Or even a marytylermooresapartment: Ironically, Moore never lived on her own, not truly, until she separated from MTM producer Grant Tinker, at age 42.)

Indeed, most women aren’t cut out for careers, as I bitched only one column ago. (Don’t get me started on voting…) Alas, The Mary Tyler Moore Show made having one look so goddamn attractive and accessible.

I just didn’t get it. Being working-class, the women in my family already worked, long before it was cool, albeit in jobs short on witty repartee and groovy outfits. And hadn’t anyone else ever seen a movie? What about Joan Crawford’s “shopgirls,” or even the uniformly beautiful brunet “lady scientists” in every other B-movie “creature feature”? (Seriously, these characters all look so similar that you’d think there was a lost “origin story” sci-fi flick about how they were all really clones…)

No, I was more impressed, and felt more validated, by Mary Tyler Moore’s most famous big-screen characterization, the grieving mother Beth in 1980’s Ordinary People.

Cold, rigid, bitter, fastidious—celluloid Martha Stewarts—there are few “Beths” in American cinema: Crawford’s eponymous character in the curio Harriet Craig; Miriam Hopkins’ “Millie” in Old Acquaintance; and later, Annette Bening’s “Carolyn” in American Beauty, and Kathleen Turner in Serial Mom.

Critics called Mary Tyler Moore’s performance “brave,” a kinder synonym for “career suicide.” Beth was the anti-“Mary”: wife and mother, yes, but not typically maternal, to put it mildly. Moore was stung by the consensus that Beth was a bitch on wheels, because her true personality was closer to that character’s than the sunny, spunky girls she’d played to fame and fortune:

Beth’s a product of her upbringing, which is a very self-disciplined way of dealing with life. She’s very orderly, very ordered; she believes very strongly in the strength of the family and in being the matriarch of that family, and that if problems arise, you deal with them with dispatch. There’s a great deal about that to admire. That’s what I hung onto in playing Beth. I like Beth.

I wouldn’t say “like,” but I seem to be alone in my reading of the character as justifiably angry: at her favorite son for dying, and her (probably unplanned) younger one for being “responsible” and then trying to die too. Temperamentally masculine, she’s nevertheless dutifully performed midcentury American femininity her whole life—the perfect hair, home, and smile—but can’t, won’t, dammit, express feelings she doesn’t have.

But of course, Mary Tyler Moore will always be best remembered as the warm, lovable woman she played on the small screen.

I always saw myself more as Hazel Frederick. A middle-aged Minneapolis mom—back when “middle-aged mom” meant you tied a scarf around your head to keep your already lacquered hair from, improbably, blowing around—who happened to be shopping downtown the day Mary was filmed tossing her beret in abandon, Hazel was freeze-framed, casting what looks like a disapproving scowl at the skinny, stunning young woman spinning in the middle of the street.

World-famous but nameless, Frederick finally introduced herself to Mary Tyler Moore at a book signing, and explained, needlessly, of course, that she hadn’t been particularly crabby that morning, just, understandably, surprised.

I wish she hadn’t. I preferred the idea that this grim babushka lady, lower left—like a Victorian ectoplasm, but real—was the specter of old-fashioned womanhood, being reduced to a forever blur by the ever-multiplying Marys in her midst.

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