Mary Tyler Moore’s death on Wednesday was an enormous loss for the entertainment industry. It is hard to overstate the importance of Mary Tyler Moore’s influence in shaping how women are portrayed in media, and in paving the way for more nuanced female characters. Onscreen, Moore took the standard portrayal of a woman as a housewife and mother, subservient to her husband, and turned it on its head. As capri-wearing, outspoken Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show, she was an equal to her husband and was often portrayed as the more level-headed of the two. As single working woman Mary Richards on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, she broke ground as a female executive in a newsroom, unafraid to stand up to her boss and stick up for herself. The barriers she broke for women on television have not gone unnoticed, as words of gratitude have come pouring in from women in the industry today, from Oprah Winfrey to Samantha Bee. Offscreen, she was one of the first female studio heads, founding MTM Enterprises with husband Grant Tinker in 1968, a studio that produced The Mary Tyler Moore Show and its spinoffs, as well as such shows as Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere.
Moore was modest about her status as a trailblazer, and downplayed her role as a feminist icon. She was timid about participating in the feminist movements that defined the 1970s, and remained somewhat more traditional offscreen than her beloved onscreen characters would lead us to believe. The role with which she identified most, she once said, was her Oscar-nominated performance as the distant, emotionless Beth Jarrett in the movie Ordinary People.
Coming after the likable, fun roles of Laura Petrie and Mary Richards, it is startling to see Moore playing a character so different. Director Robert Redford had seen something in Moore’s previous roles, a hint of sadness or vulnerability, that led him to believe that she could play the role, and he wanted her for it. The story of a family coming to terms with the drowning death of their son and the suicide attempt of their other son, Ordinary People is stark and raw, filled with inner rage under a meditative surface, and featuring spectacular performances from Moore, Donald Sutherland, and Timothy Hutton.
Ordinary People came at a difficult time in Moore’s life. Her much younger sister had just recently died of a drug overdose, and her son was troubled with drugs as well (he would die later that year). Thus, it is not difficult to imagine Moore living the role of Beth Jarrett, a mother going through the hardest time in her life. Beth emotionally distances herself from her surviving son, and comes off stone cold, uncaring and heartless.
Moore said later in an interview with the Archive of American Television that an interpretation of Beth Jarrett as heartless and brittle was not seeing the character at all. She was a victim, she said, and a woman “who wanted to do the right thing and was taught ‘how to do the right thing,’ and never let it spontaneously erupt.”
While starkly different from her groundbreaking roles on television, Ordinary People is very much a continuation of Mary Tyler Moore’s trend of empowering female characters. With her nuanced performance, she turns a woman who could, on the surface, be written off as an emotionless person, into a powerful examination into the complex emotions surrounding motherhood, death, mourning, and fear.
Ordinary People is often difficult to watch due to the built-in tension, but it is a triumph of acting prowess. If you would like to watch it, it is available on Netflix and to rent on Amazon. This is truly Mary Tyler Moore at her best and most vulnerable. She was a force of good for women in the entertainment world, and will be painfully missed.