The TakeAway: Mary Tyler Moore was emblematic for many of us who came up during the 1970s, confronting barriers to personhood whose shards still remain. Less than five days after the Women’s Marches, she made her exit, but leaves behind a lasting legacy of love that’s all around us.
Mary Tyler Moore died yesterday, in the midst of noisy news about a nasty president who called Hillary Clinton a nasty woman, and a few days after the Women’s Marches where millions turned out, around the world.
MTM was the opposite of a nasty woman, but certainly an emblem of all that mattered in the Women’s Marches. In her time, she broke as many barriers and glass ceilings as Hillary, in ways that made us embrace and love her. That smile, the perkiness — “You’ve got spunk!” Lou Grant told her, in that famous job interview at the fictional WJM-TV — that fierce commitment to living her truth (way before Beyoncé made it cool), the way she made her friends her family — all of those things, and more, were reflections of the lives many of us women led, in the 1970s.
Younger folk don’t realize how different it was back then. Women like my friends Jane O’Reilly and Melissa Ludtke were at the front of the revolution, launching Ms. magazine and breaking locker room ceilings as the rest of us pushed forward, redefining what being 20-something meant in an era where being the “first” woman in this or that was a big deal. But not to us — until we started noticing we weren’t getting paid as much, or listened to as much, or passed over more often, than men.
Mary Richards, news producer in that Minneapolis newsroom, confronted many of the same dilemmas, but instead of bitterness, it was laughter that characterized our emotional response. It was a show that showed both Mary’s work life and home life, seamlessly woven together into a whole at a time when many of us were the only ones we knew who were on our own, not questioning if we were gonna make it, but always, always running up against issues and walls that stymied.
But Mary Richards’ world was familiar to us. The ridiculous pomposity of Ted Grant — we all knew a Ted Grant — and the sweetness of his lady friend Georgia. The acerbic, bitchy hilarity of “Happy Homemaker” Sue Ann (Betty White just turned 95!!!), alongside the huggy bear wisdom of Lou Grant, the reliable, steady Murray (we all knew a Murray).
And then there were Rhoda and Phyllis, Mary’s best friends, with vastly different backgrounds but all bound by the sisterhood of powerfulness. Those three were hilarious together. I had the same friends, in my own life. They faced all kinds of challenges, with wit and flair, just like, in real life, we tried to, too.
Only later did I learn that so many of the scripts were written by women, a too-rare occasion (still) in male-dominated Hollywood. That’s why they rang so true, hit so close to home. We all were in it, together. Love was, indeed, all around, behind the camera and beyond.
After Mary Richards, Mary Tyler Moore played an entirely different character, one that also resonated greatly in my family. In her 1980 Oscar-nominated performance, she plays Beth, the grief-stricken mother whose favored eldest teenage son dies suddenly in a boating accident, while the other son, Conrad, survives. Afterwards, suffering from survivor’s guilt and PTSD, Conrad tries to commit suicide. Unable to confront the fact that their life as a family now is shattered, Beth lives in denial and stoically soldiers on, revealing both the complexity of multiple feelings storming underneath, while going through the motions of good manners and a desire to get back to “normal” — whatever that is.
I remember sitting in the theater with my brother Patrick watching Ordinary People, stunned at the similarities our own family endured. The film, Robert Redford’s directorial debut, was yet another marker, yet another artistic expression of events and emotions we knew well.
Tonight, on CBS at 9:00, there will be a tribute to Mary Tyler Moore, but there’s really no tribute show that can do justice to what she brought to our lives. I don’t know what the TV or movie equivalents are to “the soundtrack of our lives,” but whatever they are, Mary Tyler Moore is right up there at the top — smiling and laughing, reminding us that yes, we’re gonna make it after all.