'Being Mary Tyler Moore' review: Hats off to an illuminating HBO documentary HBO's Being Mary Tyler Moore draws on interviews and home movies to create a complex portrait of Moore, from her complicated private life, to her groundbreaking career.


TV Reviews

Hats off to an illuminating new documentary about Mary Tyler Moore

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This is FRESH AIR. Actress Mary Tyler Moore, who died in 2017 at age 80, is the subject of a new two-hour documentary. It's called "Being Mary Tyler Moore" and premieres this Friday on HBO. Our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: As an actress, Mary Tyler Moore is most famous for playing indelible, very funny and significantly modern everyday women in two excellent TV sitcoms. First, she won Emmys in the '60s as housewife and mother Laura Petrie on "The Dick Van Dyke Show," and then again in the '70s as single working woman Mary Richards on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." In their way, those were groundbreaking roles. But she also challenged barriers elsewhere, succeeding both on Broadway and in the movies when at the time, television stars seldom succeeded in crossing over to theater or film. And in her private life, which for the most part, she kept private, she had a complicated childhood, three marriages and her own sometimes troubling family issues, including her mother's alcoholism and eventually her own.

"Being Mary Tyler Moore," a new HBO documentary directed by James Adolphus, manages to touch all these bases - some more deeply than others. One of the executive producers of this program is Robert Levine, Moore's third husband, who provides all manner of home movies and other material. The results aren't always flattering. But they do illuminate some of the connections between the actress' private life and the roles she played, and some of the battles she fought or chose not to fight in pursuing her career. The approach Adolphus takes as director is to have no narration and to rely instead on vintage TV clips and new audio interviews. Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Oprah Winfrey, Phylicia Rashad and others talk about the impact of Mary Tyler Moore's TV roles on their own careers, but they're only heard, not seen. The TV clips are more valuable. One, the first on-screen dramatic role of her career, has her playing a telephone operator named Sam in a TV series called "Richard Diamond, Private Detective," starring David Janssen, later of "The Fugitive." She only appeared for a while before being replaced but caused quite a stir. As Sam, she always was at her telephone switchboard, but her face was never seen, only her legs and the back of her head. I've been looking for a sample of this for a long time, and here one finally is, giving David Janssen's private eye a wake-up call with her low-register phone voice.


MARY TYLER MOORE: (As Sam) Who's this?

DAVID JANSSEN: (As Richard Diamond) This is Richard Diamond of the (inaudible) Diamonds.

MOORE: (As Sam) Well, at least you're awake.

JANSSEN: (As Richard Diamond) Don't take any money on it, Samuel.

MOORE: (As Sam) You wanted me to make sure you were up. She's due at your home in about five minutes.

JANSSEN: (As Richard Diamond) Who's due?

MOORE: (As Sam) Dorian Crane. She lives on the right side of the tracks in Beverly Hills.

JANSSEN: (As Richard Diamond) What side is that?

BIANCULLI: In the documentary, Mary Tyler Moore reveals why she was replaced in that role. She had asked for a raise. Another piece of vintage television revisited several times is from a 1966 interview with TV host David Susskind. She's at the height of her "Dick Van Dyke Show" popularity then and a high-profile actress, and Susskind hits her with a line of questioning that is joltingly sexist.


DAVID SUSSKIND: How can a woman be wed to two forces in life? In other words, you're only half-married if you're in show business because that demands so much of your ego, so much investment of your energy.

MOORE: I don't think so. I think I could waste an awful lot more energy sitting at home, having nothing to do other than just talk with the girls about what gossip they've heard or just chase after the kids instead of spending time with my son because I know we don't have as much time as most parents and children have. I make good use of that time.

BIANCULLI: As we go chronologically through her career, some of the stops seem too superficial. "The Dick Van Dyke Show," created by Carl Reiner, was much more significant than the time it's given here, and even the excerpts from the episodes could have showcased the series and Mary Tyler Moore much better. "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" is treated more skillfully. Clips are chosen from that show that reflect on her relationship with her real father or that contain all the expected highlights. But while MTM Productions, which launched with "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," changed television completely and is more than worthy of its own documentary, that's more the story of Moore's second husband, Grant Tinker. He ran the company, which eventually produced "The Bob Newhart Show," "Lou Grant," "Hill Street Blues" and "St. Elsewhere."

Moore says in this documentary she was never interested in producing or directing, just dancing and acting. But in crafting and approving the concept for her own series, she did launch all those ships. One of its creators, James L. Brooks, recalls how it wasn't smooth sailing from the start. He and his writing partner, Alan Burns, pitching the first original concept for Mary Richards and for all of MTM Productions, had her moving to Minneapolis after getting divorced. That idea was dead on arrival at CBS.


JAMES L BROOKS: We were two guys at an office for a company that hadn't happened yet, kicking around ideas. I don't think there had been a divorced woman yet on television. We went to CBS to pitch with Grant, maybe 20 executives, the big boss there. And we told them this idea, and they were polite, and they asked us to step out of the room. We found out later they told Grant to fire us. They had three rules that couldn't happen on a CBS show at the time - Jews, somebody with a mustache or divorced women.

BIANCULLI: "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" was as barrier-busting in its way as the outspoken humor of "All In The Family" and the anti-war sentiment of "M*A*S*H." All those shows, by the way, eventually ended up on the same Saturday night of programming on CBS, paired with "The Bob Newhart Show" and "The Carol Burnett Show." Then and now, it remains the best night of television in television history. And this documentary, "Being Mary Tyler Moore," helps you appreciate the show and the actress even more.

MOSLEY: David Bianculli is a professor of television studies at Rowan University. Coming up, our book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews the new novel "Good Night, Irene." This is FRESH AIR.


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