Awards Daily talks to director James Adolphus about his new HBO documentary, Being Mary Tyler Moore, and the lady behind the smile.
Director James Adolphus gets a little embarrassed when asked what drew him to his latest project, the HBO documentary Being Mary Tyler Moore.
“Before I joined this project, I didn’t know anything at all about Mary Tyler Moore,” he says. “I had never seen an episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show or The Mary Tyler Moore Show. And somehow I made it through undergrad and graduate film school without seeing Ordinary People. I knew who Mary was, but she was also just a line in a Weezer song.”
Or more than a line in a Weezer song as he would come to learn.
‘He Berated Her The Entire Interview for No Good Reason’
The film starts with a David Susskind interview of Moore in the 1960s. As the talk show host speaks to the differences between single women and married women, how single women listen and married women prattle on to a quiet husband, Moore get visibly uncomfortable.
“When we finally stumbled on the interview, for me, as a man, I was so infuriated by the way he treated Mary. It’s 1966, she’s fresh off The Dick Van Dyke Show. She’s one of the most successful women in Hollywood at that moment. The way we open the film is the way he opened that conversation with Mary. He berated her the entire interview for no good reason, other than she didn’t fit the design of what a woman should be, and he was bothered by that in the most casual way. And so many people still are.”
As someone who’s both Black and Puerto Rican, Adolphus says he identified with this moment of being underestimated as well as with what the patriarchy does to your sense of self over time.
“Mary lost an incredible amount over the years, but when we are forced to measure ourself against the metric of American patriarchy, we all lose. And that was painful for me to watch. Mary still owned David Susskind in that interview. She was offput by the man, but she also put him in his place. But it was also painful to watch that erosion of that self-assuredness over the years because of what life does to all of us.”
Over the course of her life, Moore went through two divorces and lost her only son to a gun accident shortly after Ordinary People premiered in 1980, for which Moore earned her only Academy Award nomination for playing a grieving mother. Strangely enough, as the doc examines, much of Moore’s life ended up imitating art.
‘The Idea of the Bra-Burning Feminist’
However, even though Mary Tyler Moore was a feminist icon, one thing Moore never saw herself as was. . . a feminist, something Adolphus believes never changed over the course of her life.
“I think it’s because—and I tread lightly—there’s this myth, and I didn’t know this until I started this project, the idea of a bra-burning feminist. An event that never actually happened. Women did not get together, take their bras off and burn them, but they were labeled as that. Mary was a feminist. Mary supported feminism and flawlessly quoted Betty Friedan with David Susskind. She had memorized the book. Mary was absolutely a feminist. I think Mary was also a version of an American woman that did not want to be associated with a version of womanhood associated with burning bras.”
Between Mitt Romney’s “binders full of women” to the loss of Roe v. Wade, Moore’s story could have been told at any time over the past 10 to 20 years and been timely, as women are still facing the same struggles today as they did when Mary Richards lived across the hall from Rhoda Morgenstern.
“I was apprehensive when I joined the project in 2020 because we are in a moment in this country where there is a well-deserved and much larger spotlight on issues concerning women. Obviously, I am a cis man, but I couldn’t think of a more appropriate time to be able to tackle a lot of subjects lots of folks, including myself, continue to deal with. Where people put glass ceilings and how the American patriarchy has designs for all of us. For me, that was one of the lenses I thought I could faithfully bring to this project.”
Being Mary Tyler Moore debuts on HBO Friday, May 26 and is available to stream on HBO Max.