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Rest In Peace, Mary Tyler Moore

Mary Tyler Moore

This is a memorial post about an actress and comedienne whose legacy should not be diminished, marginalized and misunderstood by the claim that what she accomplished helped others; in particular, women. This is the least of her achievements to me, anyway, and not only because I’m a man. Mary Tyler Moore was foremost an artist of impeccable ability, whose skills ranged from drama to dance in a variety of formats over decades.

This is a real achievement. Ms. Moore was not merely a type. She did not merely have “class”. She was not a feminist icon. She was singularly outstanding in the whole scope of her work, performing with everyone from playwright Neil Simon on stage and Robert Redford on 1980’s best movie, Ordinary People, to superstar Ben Vereen on TV and Elvis in his last motion picture. MTM played a cancer patient, a first lady, a housewife, a nun and a journalist. In a role I am sorry to have missed seeing her perform, she played the lead, a paraplegic who demands the right to die, on Broadway in Brian Clark’s thoughtful, moving Whose Life is it, Anyway? Like Steve Jobs, Michael Jordan and many great Americans of superior ability, Mary Tyler Moore, whatever her legendary success, tried, failed and flopped time and again. In so doing, she ran a company with her late ex-husband, Grant Tinker, and variously launched The Bob Newhart Show, David Letterman and Michael Keaton, among many other talented artists and wonderful shows.

MTM as Beth Jarrett in Ordinary People (1980)

If you’ve read this far, you probably already know her career in three main acts: playing perky, modern housewife Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-1966 on CBS), playing modern, liberated producer Mary Richards on The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977, also on CBS) and playing repressed, angry and obstinate wife and mother Beth Jarrett in Mr. Redford’s magnificent 1980 adaptation of Judith Guest’s novel about a fractured family on Chicago’s North Shore. That film is very personal for me, because it helped me sort through extreme confusion before I’d read Ayn Rand. As the villain, she was nurturing and nuanced, cleaning her home and fixing her broken family and simultaneously evading what tears it apart, exacerbating the fracture and worsening the sickness. It is an underappreciated film because its complex psychology is layered and multi-dimensional, so MTM’s Beth is neither a caricature nor is the ending distinctly happy or unhappy. Instead it ends on a cold, pink morning glimmer, which begins in earnest with the sound of a taxi door closing as her character makes a quiet exit that’s as liberating for the nuclear family as was her Mary Richards for the rational, productive woman.

MTM on cover of 1977 issue of TV Guide

This takes depth, courage and seriousness and Mary Tyler Moore pushed herself as an artist and made everything look easy, which she rarely gets credit for. Yes, her Mary at WJM was a serious-minded, goal-oriented career woman, not a catty social climber or golddigger, and she had friends of both sexes, all types and all ages. But Mary was also feminine, whether in smart slacks (not that any assistant producer at a third-rate station could have afforded those outfits) or evening gowns, and she tried new hairstyles, clothes and efforts to make herself attractive to men. Mary was private, not showy and ostentatious or self-centered. She was always interested, even if mildly, in what her friends and colleagues were doing, always from a distance and never sacrificing her own interests. And she really was interested in her friends and co-workers, not merely for the sake of ingratiating herself to them.

Mary put work first. As in her Dick Van Dyke role as her husband’s helpmate in those earlier five seasons, in her seven seasons as a professional broadcast news producer, Mary made an effort to make her productiveness matter; she strived to improve the broadcast. She made an effort to encourage colleagues. She wasn’t some insecure, neurotic freak constantly rambling on about what she did last night. She played tennis, dated younger and older men, kissed on the first date, struggled with ethics, stood on principle—Mary went to jail rather than reveal a source—examined her flaws, and took pride in her work. Certainly, she was attractive and relatable. But she was also willing to stand alone and be controversial; she never lived through others and Mary Richards was, in practice, neither a deranged hedonist like today’s TV characters nor a simpering altruist like many female characters of her time—Mary was an all-American egoist.

Personally, MTM’s life was full of tragedy, despair and passion. She’d been raised as a Catholic in Los Angeles, attending Immaculate Heart in Los Feliz, the daughter of an alcoholic who would be preceded in death by her siblings, one of whom she helped in assisted suicide when he became terminal, another whose death was ruled a suicide by drug overdose. MTM checked herself at one point into the Betty Ford Center for treatment of alcoholism. Her only son shot and killed himself with a sawed off shotgun in an act which was ruled an accident. Politically, MTM went from campaigning for a Democrat for president to watching Fox News and describing herself as a “libertarian centrist”. She believed animals have rights, supported embryonic stem cell and diabetes research and, though she once met with the pope, she married a doctor, who survives her.

I already own the whole MTM series on DVD (one of the few, besides The Twilight Zone and Frasier) and I’ve seen Ordinary People more times than I can count. In all the flops and misses, the best episodes, funniest lines and greatest roles and performances, from the newlywed in Danville or the sexy mom in Capri pants in New Rochelle to the corn-fed, Twin Cities single lady and dysfunction source in Lake Forest, Illinois, it turns out after all that Mary Tyler Moore could do it all—and, in reality, she did.

 

 

The Year 2016

As 2016 ends, some say it’s been a terrible year. I think it’s too soon to judge. On one hand, Donald Trump was elected president and, as I first wrote here 15 months ago, and here after Trump became president-elect, I think Trump’s a new low in U.S. government and I have every reason to believe that his election is extremely bad for the country based on individual rights. I agree with Objectivist scholar Onkar Ghate that Trump’s victory is a step toward dictatorship (though Ghate would have made a better case had he also addressed why his center for advancing Objectivism failed to stop it).

On the other hand, as Dr. Ghate writes, this is an age of industry, progress and opportunity. Despite the dismal regression of rights under Obama’s presidency, the individual remains essentially free to use technology to create, express, trade, distribute and profit. There are serious and severe restrictions on this freedom and they are getting worse, with the prospect of all-out assault on rights looming, but I think it’s likely that there could be partial rollbacks on these restrictions, too. The freedom of speech is under attack, but the individual remains free to think and speak for himself.

La La Land, my choice for 2016’s best movie.

This shows in today’s culture. Movies such as La La Land, Hidden Figures, Sully, Snowden, Sing Street and Loving, among others—browse through my reviews for thoughts on this year’s movies, many of which excel—are bold, provocative and outstanding. This year, however, the culture’s burrowing celebrity worship entered the realm of government, which is extremely dangerous. I think this is getting worse and insidiously, too, as people follow what’s trending at the expense of what matters.

Social media amplifies and, as it does, people tend to seek approval (“likes”) through under and overreactions. Unfortunately, this means they may overestimate someone pegged to a hugely popular trend, such as the dry and likable Carrie Fisher of the Star Wars series, who recently died, and underappreciate the individual of outstanding ability—exhibiting singularly exceptional, enduring and wide-ranging achievements—who has no link to a popular trend, such as Bowie, Ali or Wilder (Prince, Patty Duke, Dr. Heimlich, Ron Glass and George Michael also come to mind).

Social media may also invite emotionalism in moral judgment, by my observation. I see evidence of this in condemnation conferred upon the individual for the smallest action, i.e., removing a post, or the most simple statement, as when I pointed out to actress Jessica Chastain on Twitter that convicted sex criminal Brock Turner had, in fact, been convicted under state law of sexual assault, not rape, as she had implied in a Tweet. I was vilified by Chastain’s followers for naming her false assertion while she refused to respond. I had been made aware of this crucial distinction by an informative article in the Washington Post. Judging by the “Twitter storm”, Chastain and followers were not interested in knowing facts.

Tim Cook, my pick for 2016’s Individual of the Year

So, as I’ve written on this blog and elsewhere, I think it’s getting to be harder to stand alone, express a viewpoint that dissents from the herd, even if the herd is confined in a certain type of corral, and become informed, knowledgeable and able to exercise free speech.

That said, I have no hesitation to choose as 2016’s best individual one who, in terms of my philosophy, does all of the above exceptionally well: Apple CEO Tim Cook. He’s a native Southerner, white, male and gay and he’s famous in 2016 for making money, being a wealthy businessman and defeating the government over surveillance statism. He was opposed, condemned and denounced on those grounds by 2016’s dominant politicians—Trump, Sanders and Obama—so he’s all in against the status quo.

It’s easy to underestimate what Tim Cook did this year. Many (if not most) did. He not only runs a multi-billion dollar company that serves the world with exemplary innovation which liberates millions of people. Cook also responded to an Islamic terrorist attack in Southern California by formulating an intelligent response when his company’s products were implicated in the assault, assembling a team to deal with the crisis and standing alone—under intense media scrutiny—to oppose the Obama administration’s unprecedented assault on Apple’s rights.

That Cook won, defeating government control—the United States later dropped the case against Apple and contradicted its own argument, claiming that the government had hacked into Apple’s machine—is both proud accomplishment and inspiring example (like Edward Snowden a few years ago) and evidence in defense of 2016. Whatever history’s verdict, and keeping its lessons and what looms in mind, Tim Cook is a heroic counterpoint to today’s mindlessness. Cook’s principled stand against the state is cause enough to be grateful for this individual of the year and another reason to greet midnight with a cheerful “Happy New Year!”

Remember Ron Glass

The cast of the gritty, Greenwich Village police comedy, Barney Miller (1975-1982), was anchored by Hal Linden in the lead. He played the 12th precinct’s rational police captain, who was practical, balanced and optimistic. The show’s uniquely dry, humorous pathos stemmed from shuttling between cynicism and idealism, almost always with a dash of the ridiculous. A multicultural cast avoided tokenism in the writing, which twists stereotypes every which way with cop and criminal characters that are old, Puerto Rican, black, female, Polish, gay, etc. The most intellectual character was a police detective who’s a writer named Harris.

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Ron Glass (seated, far left) as Det. Harris on ‘Barney Miller’

Detective Harris was played by Ron Glass, who died last week. Glass played Harris with perfection for all eight seasons. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen the show, which isn’t easy to find in syndication, and longer since I watched with my dad as a kid while it aired on ABC. I remember Detective Harris as clever and discriminating in spending his wit and intelligence on his work in the precinct; Harris did his job and did it well and was often called upon for his writing skills. What was distinctive, besides his being black in an era in which most black TV characters were poor, uneducated or criminal, is that Harris was both intellectual and debonair; he was handsome and was always the best dressed without being a dandy.

Det. Harris was also the only one with a steady, long-term career goal outside of law enforcement. He was usually relaxed, driven and disciplined. Harris always held himself a bit removed from his co-workers. He was proud, even a bit arrogant, yet affable and he never sought to be just one of the guys. Harris had higher aims. As I recall, the sophisticated detective was also the least prone to suffering, guilt and self-pity. Harris was an egoistic, happy policeman.

I can’t think of too many writer characters in Seventies television, let alone writers portrayed as positive and efficacious, as against fundamentally flawed and neurotic, and in mostly male work environments. I noticed this as a boy and, because I knew I wanted to be a writer, I found myself looking to Harris as a character every week, watching how he held and handled himself, checked himself, disciplined himself, withdrew or spoke up and worked within the precinct as a means to an end. That Harris, who eventually wrote and published a book, happened to be black was less integral to his identity than that he wanted to write. I noticed this, too. I think that’s thanks to Ron Glass, who took biting lines and deadpan looks, gave the character depth—not merely sass—and created an indelible cop-writer.

Last week, a decrepit dictator died who should be remembered for mass enslavement, misery and death and, as a warning, for glorifying thuggishness in TV, media and culture. TV also lost an amicable and talented entertainer, Florence Henderson, who played a cheerful housewife and mother for five seasons on another ABC comedy. Seeing the glorified thug on TV taught me early in life that something was terribly wrong with the world. Watching an idealized parent on TV gave me some guidance in the form of an often artificial and silly situation. I gained the most value from watching an actor playing an intellectual policeman who chooses to become a writer. For eight seasons on Barney Miller, Ron Glass made projecting a goal into the future seem possible and enjoyable. He did it with a sense of hard, grueling work as a rare and rewarding achievement. For this reason, I think it’s Ron Glass, the least likely of these three to be known, grieved and remembered, whose work will have—and ought to have—the greatest impact in the future.

Movie Analysis: Oklahoma! (1955)

“There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow.” This line begins one of the greatest movies ever made, Oklahoma! (1955). Its original format was an ambitious and bold Broadway musical—itself an adaptation of a play by an Oklahoman playwright named Lynn Riggs—which Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein adapted with Viennese-born director Fred Zinnemann (The Day of the Jackal, The Nun’s Story, A Man for All Seasons), who also directed High Noon (1952) and From Here to Eternity (1953).

This musical lyric unspools a simple and circular melody rejoicing in the promise of a new day sung by a character who’s an American cowboy. He rides alone on the prairie, so he sings as a hymn to himself. He goes by the name Curly (Gordon MacRae), wears a bright red shirt and rides on top of his horse with ease, rhythm and total control as he sings in a low, booming and soulful affirmation: “Oh, what a beautiful morning! Oh, what a beautiful day/I’ve got a beautiful feeling/Ev’rything’s going my way.”

It’s a stunning moment in cinema, letting the audience see man in an undaunted musical expression of supreme self-confidence.

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Curly’s accent is as flat as the Midwest’s, as clipped as the mountain states’ and as relaxed as the South’s with the vocabulary of the West and Oklahoma! is centrally about Curly making life go his way. But Oklahoma! is also about a period of time when it felt like the world could go America’s way; the way of individualism, capitalism and a robust, greedy and selfish pursuit of happiness here on earth.

I’ve previously seen Oklahoma!—which screened before Thanksgiving in 35mm at the Wells Fargo Theater at the Autry Museum of the American West and introduced by the Autry’s assistant curator of Western history Josh Garrett-Davis—on television, DVD and the silver screen and I always find new aspects in its artistry. This time, I noticed that the film, written by Sonya Levien and William Ludwig with songs by Rodgers and Hammerstein, is consciously liberal and decidedly anti-traditionalist. Oklahoma! is liberated about sex and filled with optimism for the future, not nostalgia for the past.

Curly looks eagerly, greedily, toward his future. The handsome cowboy takes no liberties and treats the pretty young lady he desires (Shirley Jones as Laurey in her movie debut) as an equal. Like Gregory Peck in The Big Country, he’s playful with Laurey, not domineering, and he respects her decisions when she makes up her mind, even when he knows she’s wrong. Curly’s accustomed not entitled to attention; when wise and frisky old Aunt Eller (Charlotte Greenwood in an outstanding performance) flirts, he takes it in stride.

But then Curly is an enlightened man. At mid-point in Oklahoma!, Curly notices a picture of a naked woman. He gets closer to inspect it. He gives the picture a good look. He thinks about it, then comments on it. He’s neither put off nor overly interested. He notices but he doesn’t drool or put on airs to impress others and he certainly doesn’t dismiss it. The picture’s another fact to assimilate in modern life and Curly’s curious. He’s neither hyper-masculine nor emasculated. Indeed, Curly doesn’t mind if Laurey sees him express emotion—whether anger or joy—as he knows his own worth.

Knowing himself figures into Curly’s conflict with the story’s villain, Aunt Eller’s hired hand, Jud Fry (Rod Steiger, Doctor Zhivago), competing for Laurey’s attention. MacRae’s performance is underappreciated, especially in their smokehouse scenes as Curly mocks Jud’s misanthropy, displaying subtle humor, bravery and intelligence as he measures Jud’s character in one of Oklahoma!‘s most disturbing scenes as unwashed Jud, who lives in a moist underbelly of primitivism, essentially chooses to come out for the death premise (this turns out to be a flaw in Curly’s character as he lets Laurey ride with Jud knowing that Jud’s a threat).

Laurey, too, is an enlightened woman. Though the character is incessantly critiqued for being sweet and virginal—and Oklahoma! is undeservedly criticized for being too sentimental (it is serious and dark, not all sugary and light, though it is emphatically romantic)—her solo starts as an ode to the “healthy and strong woman”, in contrast to a shallow, hyper-feminine second-hander. Laurey sings her complicated profession and lament to a gathering of women in whom she finds support and discovers in herself the skill for leadership. It’s a bright, frilly, high-pitched scene and song immersed in femininity and femaleness but it is not frivolous. For example, a short-haired brunette who stands out for being too rambunctious as the ladies dress for the auction is also pointedly the first female to console Laurey when she’s hurt and it’s the brunette that steps up to remind Laurey of her inner strength.

Shared values aside, Laurey is no less liberated when she is alone, bathing naked in the outdoors with neither shame nor exhibitionism.

Even steady, salty old Aunt Eller is a modern, rational woman who both scorns tradition and speaks plainly about men, passion and sexuality. Freethinking in Oklahoma! leads to sensual, romantic love, territorial unity and free trade; a more perfect union. When Laurey and Curly go side by side, their chemistry is electric. A butterfly encircles the couple. Set during the Industrial Revolution, Zinnemann captures Americanism in their fresh faces: the innocence, confidence and intransigence. With birds, horses and cattle in almost every frame, and drifting clouds and rippling waves representing widening effects of what’s yet to come—amidst incisive and exceptional songs—Oklahoma! implies that sex and love are best aligned and in any case are a vital, natural part of forging a dynamic, new land.

MacRae’s strong and solitary Curly, from romancing Laurey on that first beautiful morning to bidding on her picnic basket against Jud Fry, symbolizes the West’s new, freethinking man. Curly is the first one to initiate a handshake after a plea for peace, trade and understanding between cowboys and farmers.

I noticed more realism mixed with romanticism this time, too. Oklahoma! could easily have ended after a happily ever after scene. Zinnemann, aided in tone by an extended foreshadowing dream sequence in a dance choreographed by Agnes De Mille, goes deeper, letting Aunt Eller deliver a stern if tender cautionary warning to Laurey that life means taking the good with the bad, rising above adversity and accentuating the best in life.

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No analysis of Oklahoma! would be whole without addressing its deft and delightful comic relief, Will (the perfectly cast and talented Gene Nelson) and Ado Annie (Gloria Grahame, acing the role) who bundle and bind the story’s themes into one immensely rewarding subplot involving Eddie Albert (Roman Holiday) as a foreigner. This pair cashes in on the Rodgers and Hammerstein humor after Will returns to Oklahoma from Kansas City to eventually corral Ado Annie, who keeps melting with men because she “cain’t” say no (except when Will goes to kiss her). Annie, daughter of a strict, dismissive farmer (James Whitmore), protests and explains, especially as her Will discovers pornography, ragtime and the “tellyphone” in a remarkable dance at the depot.

As with corn husker closeups, Zinnemann frames that scene and enhances it, symbolizing the Oklahoma territory’s change from old to new, as Aunt Eller’s horse-drawn carriage pulls up on the right of the screen as the camera pans to the left and a steam engine-powered train pulls into the station with a tail-wagging dog scampering to welcome the pioneer to the industrial revolution. The section finishes as Will casually hops onto his horse from the departing locomotive, retaining the cowboy’s way as the carousel of progress revolves.

This is Oklahoma! which brilliantly and musically, dramatically—with action-packed scenes, fabulous songs and great performances—renders the tale of a heroic individualist and the young, modern woman he loves, their chosen friends and fellow pioneers and the ties that bind in a rousing, and distinctly American, title song which could have gone on and on and on as far as I am concerned.

If you haven’t seen Oklahoma!, or if you haven’t seen it lately, this musical exists not to recall America’s past greatness as much as it does to showcase the boundless optimism that Americans once held as an ideal vision for the new country’s future.

 

LA’s Eagle Rock

The northeastern part of Los Angeles contains a neighborhood known as Eagle Rock with a population of about 30,000. I’ve enjoyed visiting and writing about the hillside section of LA for years. I almost bought a mid-century modern house near there some years ago and I write about Eagle Rock for a newspaper owned by the LA Times.

That’s why I’m disturbed by this week’s reports by the LAPD and an Eagle Rock campus club of an attack on a police vehicle and an apparently unrelated siege against a 9/11 memorial display at a small liberal arts school located there. Both incidents are under investigation.

Eagle Rock is tucked away by Glassell Park, Glendale and Highland Park in the northeast section of the city. Its main artery is Colorado Boulevard, which runs into Pasadena in the San Gabriel Valley where the Tournament of Roses parade strolls every year on New Year’s Day. The boulevard used to be lined with motels, Italian family restaurants and antique shops from Glendale to Eagle Rock before the Colorado Street Bridge.

latimeslobby2016It’s still somewhat like that, though this small and interesting part of LA is changing. Crime has been a problem in Eagle Rock ever since I can remember. Homelessness, too. Pockets of the northeastern section, which, like Los Angeles, is part suburb, part urban, contain a variety of LA points of interest, from the actual hillside ‘eagle rock’ (because it resembles an eagle) for which the neighborhood is named to the 1953 recreation center at 1100 Eagle Vista Drive, conceived and designed by Richard Neutra. The rec center, with Neutra’s retractable walls, includes basketball and tennis courts and areas for children’s play and gymnastics. Its need for improvement is among several topics addressed at last week’s local council meeting, which I wrote about here in a piece posted on the Los Angeles Times website.

This week’s attack against police off the 134 freeway and anti-American vandalism and assault on freedom of speech at Occidental College, where Barack Obama and Jack Kemp, the 1996 vice-presidential nominee, once took classes and graduated, respectively, are major events and ought to cause Eagle Rock residents, schools and businesses serious concern. When I attended the all-volunteer council’s meeting, I found those attending and presiding to be very engaged, especially about the prospect for worsening crime, so I anticipate a strong reaction.

But I also think Eagle Rock is a microcosm of the country, with crumbling infrastructure and more government control, with some focused more on punishing the productive and profitable than on improving the quality of life by protecting the First Amendment and property rights. I’ve also found decent hardworking individuals in the community who have lived, bought, traded, worked and invested there for years.

As with good Americans everywhere, they must rise to the challenge of this new siege on free speech and assault on law enforcement by showing up at council meetings, speaking out, exercising the freedom of speech and defending the rights of the individual.

Eagle Rock, like America, certainly has what it takes to end the attacks.

From the shops, boutiques and eateries along Eagle Rock Boulevard to Eagle Rock’s library and the wine tasting room on Colorado Blvd., which I wrote about last week, there’s more good than bad in this uniquely mixed LA neighborhood. As the wine tasting room’s owner, an Occidental alum and businessman who spoke of his plans to host a talk by Oxy scholars on Greek mythology, said when he showed a tattoo of Achilles: “I love the classics.”

This display of pride in explicit free expression and support for the foundations of Western civilization is just what besieged Eagle Rock needs.


Related

Articles about Eagle Rock by Scott Holleran

Businessman Sponsors Local Artists at Wine Tasting Room

Eagle Rock Neighborhood Council Meeting on Sign, Property Regulations, Neutra-designed Rec Center

Photo Exhibit at Eagle Rock Branch Library