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January 31, 2017

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Mary Tyler Moore

(Or even a marytylermooresapartment: Ironically, Moore never lived on her own, not truly, until she separated from MTM producer Grant Tinker, at age 42.)

Indeed, most women aren”€™t cut out for careers, as I bitched only one column ago. (Don”€™t get me started on voting…) Alas, The Mary Tyler Moore Show made having one look so goddamn attractive and accessible.

I just didn”€™t get it. Being working-class, the women in my family already worked, long before it was cool, albeit in jobs short on witty repartee and groovy outfits. And hadn”€™t anyone else ever seen a movie? What about Joan Crawford’s “€œshopgirls,”€ or even the uniformly beautiful brunet “€œlady scientists”€ in every other B-movie “€œcreature feature”€? (Seriously, these characters all look so similar that you”€™d think there was a lost “€œorigin story”€ sci-fi flick about how they were all really clones…)

No, I was more impressed, and felt more validated, by Mary Tyler Moore’s most famous big-screen characterization, the grieving mother Beth in 1980’s Ordinary People.

Cold, rigid, bitter, fastidious”€”celluloid Martha Stewarts”€”there are few “€œBeths”€ in American cinema: Crawford’s eponymous character in the curio Harriet Craig; Miriam Hopkins”€™ “€œMillie”€ in Old Acquaintance; and later, Annette Bening’s “€œCarolyn”€ in American Beauty, and Kathleen Turner in Serial Mom.

Critics called Mary Tyler Moore’s performance “€œbrave,”€ a kinder synonym for “€œcareer suicide.”€ Beth was the anti-“€œMary”€: wife and mother, yes, but not typically maternal, to put it mildly. Moore was stung by the consensus that Beth was a bitch on wheels, because her true personality was closer to that character’s than the sunny, spunky girls she”€™d played to fame and fortune:

Beth’s a product of her upbringing, which is a very self-disciplined way of dealing with life. She’s very orderly, very ordered; she believes very strongly in the strength of the family and in being the matriarch of that family, and that if problems arise, you deal with them with dispatch. There’s a great deal about that to admire. That’s what I hung onto in playing Beth. I like Beth.

I wouldn”€™t say “€œlike,”€ but I seem to be alone in my reading of the character as justifiably angry: at her favorite son for dying, and her (probably unplanned) younger one for being “€œresponsible”€ and then trying to die too. Temperamentally masculine, she’s nevertheless dutifully performed midcentury American femininity her whole life”€”the perfect hair, home, and smile”€”but can”€™t, won”€™t, dammit, express feelings she doesn”€™t have.

But of course, Mary Tyler Moore will always be best remembered as the warm, lovable woman she played on the small screen.

I always saw myself more as Hazel Frederick. A middle-aged Minneapolis mom”€”back when “€œmiddle-aged mom”€ meant you tied a scarf around your head to keep your already lacquered hair from, improbably, blowing around”€”who happened to be shopping downtown the day Mary was filmed tossing her beret in abandon, Hazel was freeze-framed, casting what looks like a disapproving scowl at the skinny, stunning young woman spinning in the middle of the street.

World-famous but nameless, Frederick finally introduced herself to Mary Tyler Moore at a book signing, and explained, needlessly, of course, that she hadn”€™t been particularly crabby that morning, just, understandably, surprised.

I wish she hadn”€™t. I preferred the idea that this grim babushka lady, lower left”€”like a Victorian ectoplasm, but real”€”was the specter of old-fashioned womanhood, being reduced to a forever blur by the ever-multiplying Marys in her midst.

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