January 27, 2017

Beautiful cipher

Rob Sheffield's piece on Mary Tyler Moore is superb.  (link)

The picture he used is perfect.  It's all right there - the good looks, the ambition, the insecurity, the anxiety...a face seemingly not sure whether to express hope, doubt, joy, or pain:

I never knew what to make of Mary Tyler Moore, exactly.  She was beautiful, of course, but in a hyper-detailed stylized 70s way that makes no more sense to me now than it did then.  In the opening credits she walks mechanically around a reservoir in a jump suit...why?!  She was the best looking person on her show and probably the best looking person in tv comedy, and it was absolutely the least important thing about her performances.

She was a hell of an actor from Day One.  Carl Reiner said he knew she was right the minute he saw her audition - he hired her on the spot.  Not hard to see why:

But it was Day Two that got really interesting.  I'd watch The Mary Tyler Moore Show and try to figure out what they were doing with the character - I know Ted's dumb, Murray's smart but wimpy, Lou's tough but kind...but what's Mary?  What's the deal with her?  What does she do?  Where is this going?

And the answer was: nothing.  She did nothing.  Sure, she'd be in every scene - they ran the whole show through her - she met people, she did duets with Ed Asner, Ted Knight, Georgia Engel and a dozen other great talents.  Everything revolved around her from the opening shot to the ending credits.  But most of the time she was Zeppo - the more you looked at her, the less there was.  She was always shadowboxing with the audience, playing a character baffled by life, smiling brilliantly, subjected to indignities, and always refusing to choose a path, particularly one that might lead to love, security, or who knows even happiness.

She said, Macy-like, “I'm not an actress who can create a character. I play me.”

The show seemed to be about the liminal space between her failed engagement and the next big event - a promotion?  matrimony?  - in her life.  In the meantime she was pressing on, focusing on work, tuning most everything else out, vamping...just like her boss.

We're not so different, you and I.

There was talk of making Lou and Mary a couple, but Moore didn't want that.  Mary Richards commits to nobody and nothing.  She hovers in indeterminate space in a life that, for better or worse, is the product of her choices and no one else's.

Day Three was Ordinary People, her Holy Grail, she said.

As Moore departs, I still wonder who she was.  She was so good at deflection and redirection.  In this appearance on Carson she counters so well that the segment turns into an extensive Carson confessional:

How can you miss someone you never knew?  How can you mourn someone whose face you never really saw?

But I do.

[UPDATE:  A good piece about her on 'Fresh Air' today.]


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