Being Mary Tyler Moore (2023)

Mary Tyler Moore doc is a tad superficial

Who doesn’t adore Mary Tyler Moore? “Being Mary Tyler Moore,” the clip-heavy hagiographic documentary currently playing on Max, leaves no doubt where it stands on the subject. But a keen viewer with a far more discerning eye than director James Adolphus will detect tiny cracks in the facade of a woman who had issues reconciling the perpetual sunniness of her iconic alter-egos, Laura Petrie and Mary Richards, with the periods of darkness that shadowed her outside the glare of the klieg lights.

How could she not? Beyond her own battles with alcohol, there were her younger sister’s suicide at age 21, a childhood spent witnessing her mother’s nightly booze-fueled tirades and the ultimate pain of her only child “accidentally” shooting himself dead. Any one of those traumas would cripple the sturdiest of souls. But MTM, who died in 2017, seldom revealed the underlying sorrow. The one exception might have been in her Oscar-nominated role of Beth, the cold, seemingly detached mother dealing with her young son’s death in “Ordinary People.” Was that the real Mary Tyler Moore? Or was it mere coincidence (a cruel case of life imitating art) when her own son, 24-year-old Richie Meeker, died just one month after “Ordinary People” opened in theaters to universal acclaim?

Who knows? Like most of “Being Mary Tyler Moore,” Adolphus sweeps past the less savory aspects of Moore’s turbulent life to cut to yet another clip from her “happy” days on “The Dick Van Dyke” and “The Mary Tyler Moore” shows. It’s an acute case of selective homage. One suspects the director’s hands were tied, because without access to Moore’s friends, colleagues and reels of captivating home movies, would there even be a film to make? So he’s forced to tiptoe about, especially with respect to Moore’s third husband, Dr. Robert Levine, looming off-stage as one of the film’s producers.

Despite the heavy dose of positives, you’d have to be utterly clueless not to spot the sadness lurking behind the luminous MTM smile. Perhaps John Tinker conveys it best when he observes that when his stepmom had an interest in something, she was fully engaged; but when she didn’t, she retreated into her own little world. Hearing that, my ears perked up. But nothing more is spoken about it. Instead, we’re bombarded with dozens of disembodied testimonials on how wonderful Moore was as an actress and friend. Yet, we never see any of the faces of her adulators.

Firsthand accounts are rare since most of the cast and crew from Moore’s two seminal TV series have passed on. But recruiting Rob Reiner to serve as surrogate for his father, Carl, the creator of “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” is a bit of a stretch. On the other hand how serendipitous that Adolphus was able to pick the brains of Ed Asner and Betty White just prior to their deaths. And to be privy to the behind-the-scenes scuttlebutt from “Mary Tyler Moore Show” vets James L. Brooks and Treva Silverman is priceless. But did we really need commentary from Rosie O’Donnell and Reese Witherspoon? What link do they have to MTM beyond a debt of gratitude to her for opening the doors that enabled them to crash a once male-dominated world?

Should that be Moore’s legacy? She, and even more so, Mary Richards, undoubtedly played a significant role in altering opinions on what a woman can be in the home and the workplace. But no less than Gloria Steinem disputes this. Oddly, so does Moore, who was pro-feminism but never considered herself a feminist. It’s just one of the many paradoxes that emerge during a film too busy whitewashing to examine the complexities of the woman who could “turn the world on with her smile.”

So, who is this film for? That’s a tough one. If pressured, I’d say it’s best suited for young viewers who have no idea who Mary Tyler Moore was or of the contributions she made to both TV and the feminist movement. I’d also recommend it to boomers who grew up enamored by Laura Petrie and Mary Richards. It’s a terrific impetus for reminiscing and getting nostalgic. But if you’re looking for a comprehensive probe into the enigma that was MTM, or to solve the mystery behind that effervescent smile, I’m afraid it’s not going to make it after all.

Movie review

Being Mary Tyler Moore

Director: James Adolphus

Runtime: 120 minutes

Where: On Max

Grade: B

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