Movie Review: Splendid new documentary explores Mary Tyler Moore’s private side

“Who can turn the world on with her smile?” It’s Mary Tyler Moore, of course, and you should know it.

To be precise, it’s Mary Richards, a person Moore played. But the smile was her own, and it worked magic across two situation comedies that described their time in a way that some might have regarded as ahead of their time. Although Moore proved herself as an actress of depth and range and peerless comic timing again and again, on the small and big screen and on the stage, “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” made her a star, and incidentally a cultural figurehead, and are the reason we have a splendid new documentary, “Being Mary Tyler Moore,” that premiered on HBO. Were it titled simply “Being Mary,” there’d be little doubt who was meant.

Moore was driven to perform from an early age, which she relates to wanting to impress her father — though that seems too simple. A failed audition to play the older daughter on “The Danny Thomas Show” led to her being called for “Van Dyke,” of which Thomas was an executive producer. Creator Carl Reiner remembers, “I read about 60 girls, and I read the whole script with them. She read three lines, three simple lines. There was such a ping in it, an excitement, a reality to it.” They soon discovered her gift for comedy.

That Mary was a single woman in no rush to be married was something new for television — but it could hardly be said that she lived alone; her apartment was subject to regular incursions from Rhoda (Valerie Harper) and Phyllis (Cloris Leachman), a company of women hashing out their different lives in a sort of dialectical comedy.

Whether this was or was not a feminist series is a question that still prompts think pieces. Gloria Steinem thought not, and Moore did not identify herself as such — though in the opening scene of the documentary, in a 1966 interview with a backward David Susskind, she does say, “I agree with Betty Friedan and her point of view in her book ‘Feminine Mystique’ that women are, or should be, human beings first, women second, wives and mothers third.”

It is the point of nearly any show business biography that the person we know from their work is and is not the person who lived the life. Indeed, the very title “Being Mary Tyler Moore” suggests that “Mary Tyler Moore” was both a part she played and a person she was, similar in some respects and markedly different in others. Directed by James Adolphus, with Moore’s widower, Dr. Robert Levine, on board as an executive producer, the film has access to a wealth of family photos and home movies — including footage of her bridal shower, featuring a hilarious Betty White — and does a fine job of illuminating the private Moore, with testimony from (unseen) colleagues, friends and family.


Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)

How to watch: Streaming on Max