Something to watch tonight: Tuesday 21 November
Being Mary Tyler Moore (Adolphus, 2023)
Whenever I feel like a low impact pick-me-up, I will often look for a good celebrity biography. They have to be good, mind you, and some documentaries or documentary series that are finding their way to Netflix do not merit that description.
Find yourself something that played a recent film festival or is on DocPlay or has the HBO logo on the front and you won’t go far wrong.
Being Mary Tyler Moore is in the HBO category and is one of the most satisfying documentaries I’ve seen in a while, despite – or perhaps because – I didn’t know too much about the star before going in.
Indeed, I don’t recall ever seeing The Mary Tyler Moore Show regularly – I was in the WKRP in Cincinnati generation – but when director James Adolphus wisely uses the entire “Love Is All Around” opening credits to the show I found myself tearing up.
That’s not just the power of nostalgia, it’s an all-time great song, but it’s also great storytelling because it appears at a moment when Mary is at a low ebb, recovering from a failed Broadway experiment and a series of terrible Hollywood films. She needed to be reminded that love was all around, too.
Returning to situation comedy would make her the biggest female star on television for seven hugely successful seasons and the most influential woman on American screens in the 1970s.
The documentary tells the career story – despite all that acclaim she says she always felt like failed dancer rather than a successful actor – but it’s when it gets into the contradictions of her personal life that it becomes really insightful.
She achieved her greatest fame playing a single career girl but in her own life she had been married and a mother since she was 18-years-old. Her greatest asset was that smile but co-workers often talk about her as being aloof and distant when off-camera. She was fiercely loyal, as so many contributors testify, but not very easy to get to know.
And then there’s the tragedies of her life – no one really escapes these things, I know, but it’s still a shock when they occur, life having a way of knocking you down a peg or two when you think you’ve made it.
It’s not a talking heads documentary. The contributions from friends and admirers are via voiceover and the visuals benefit from access to her considerable family archives.
The film is also a reminder of a time when culture was shared by us all. Millions of people tuned in to The Mary Tyler Moore Show every Saturday night but they also stuck around for All in the Family, Newhart, M*A*S*H and Carol Burnett. It was anodyne, true, but it provided connective tissue for a society that was in danger of splintering.
Final thought:The Mary Tyler Moore Show is available on DVD here in Aotearoa but not available on any local streamer? There’s so much vintage and classic television that is missing in action online, even though they are available overseas. I feel an investigation coming along.
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Where to find Being Mary Tyler Moore
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