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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.

 

 

TV and DVD Review: Escape from Sobibor

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German SS and Nazis constructed the top secret death camp Sobibor in the spring of 1942 along a railway line in a remote, wooded region of Poland. The gassing of Jews arriving by boxcars began in May 1942, according to historians. The Holocaust Museum writes that “Nazi Germans ordered the Jews into the barracks and forced them to undress and run through the “tube,” which led directly into gas chambers deceptively labeled as showers. The women’s hair was shorn in a special barracks inside the “tube.” Once the gas chamber doors were sealed, in an adjacent room guards started an engine which piped carbon monoxide into the gas chambers, killing all those inside. The process was repeated with the next freight cars.”

But on October 14, 1943, Jews fought back, waging all-out attack on the slavemasters and ghouls by carrying out a bold, impossible and vicious revolt in which many escaped to freedom. Before he died, writer, teacher and historian John David Lewis recommended a British movie (read the full interview here) about the daring death camp rebellion, Escape From Sobibor, which was televised on CBS in 1987.

Nazis and their allies killed at least 167,000 people at Sobibor. Those who organized the resistance group in the late spring of 1943 meticulously planned their counterstrike, plotting to surreptitiously eradicate key SS officials and start an uprising. The 2-hour film is a gripping dramatization of their heroic story. With a teleplay by Reginald Rose, based on the book by Richard Rashke and other source material including an unpublished manuscript, and directed by Jack Gold, Escape From Sobibor is must-see viewing for Jews and all people who are persecuted, oppressed and longing to live in freedom. It is the anti-Schindler’s List. This is because the Jews portrayed here are depicted fundamentally as individuals – not as a tribe – who fight and run for their lives. In fact, the most tradition-bound and faith-based among the prisoners are depicted without casting aspersions as passive and ready to die.

The opening takes place on a bright day with flowers and sunshine and innocent people painting what might be one’s home. But soon the camera comes to a cold, gray pole that rises and rises until one sees that this is a flagpole upon which the hoisted flag bears the mark of the swastika and the innocents are slaves who are marked for duty to the Aryan race and National Socialist state. After a failed escape, men are shot. Leon (Alan Arkin) flinches at the sound of a gunshot. Certain Jews are spared the gas chambers if they work a trade in order to serve those who commit the mass murder. Some Jews known as kapos do so willingly and some are better than others. Leon, who has lost his wife and children, leads them into what for some may become the great escape.

Getting off the boxcars, families are separated. Property is abandoned, to be seized by the state. A single old Jew disembarking from the train walks up and strikes a Nazi in the face and instantly it is clear that this death camp is different; here, Jews are not all passive, compliant pacifists who take obedience on faith. Some are exceptionally spirited in spite of the black smoke and what they sense or know it means. That they shudder in the shadows of mass death is proof of life. Some grasp this fact and a band of men, women and children bond. A few speak up to lead. A resistance forms.

“The better your behavior, the easier your stay here,” they are told by the Nazi government types, who order the Jews to obey, get in line and just follow orders. But quickly the individuals are introduced as individuals: Luka, Samuel, Yitzhak, Shlomo, Tolvi, others. Later, a blond Soviet Jew named Sasha (Rutger Hauer in one of his best performances) is imprisoned here with other Russian Jews. Arkin’s Leon eventually recruits eager, steely Luka (pitch perfect Joanna Pacula) with the deep set eyes to provide cover as they scheme to create an impossible liberation. But first there is the nonstop agony, grayness and death as kapos carry a whip, killer dogs bark at night and Leon breaks it to newcomer Yitzhak that “the fire is the funeral” and the black smoke signals death. As the men talk, grope and plan, Luka looks out the window at the cluster of huddled Jews and begins to understand.

Escape From Sobibor is distinctly British, not Hollywood, and its production is made for television. This means that action is earned, as in a miniseries, and resistance grows in each individual character slowly, in time, as men and women seek to better grasp what is reality, how to know, who to trust, how to feel, where to speak freely, why they bond and when to fight back. When some Jews rightly spew anger at kapos who get favored treatment and the Nazi-favored Jews spew back, Leon, the death camp’s moral and life force, steps in to enunciate the picture’s theme. Breaking up the conflict, he asks: “why do we fight amongst ourselves? If we have energy to spend, let us spend it against those who have reduced us to this.”

This is the tale of how they do.

For their part, the Nazis are as small and sadistic, and, surprisingly realistic, as such monsters have to be, commanding Jewish prisoners by force to imprint a snake in gold and tearing at each other with petty little hatreds such as whether it is permissible to use Jews for sex before they are gassed. “How many Jews did you gas today?” One of the fat, disgusting bastards asks one of the more efficient, punctual Germans, trying to put him in his cowardly place. But there are merely rungs of hell in Sobibor and the movie inches toward the moment they are about to burn.

“The best revenge is for you to survive,” one Jew tells another, as yet another failed escape leads to a doubling in executions with a diabolical twist that sparks the story’s shocking and honest solution to the problem of being “chosen” as Jews in this context. In this dank place near the river, Jews did not wait for God, prayers, traditions or fate, luck or a good German to get them out and when a good-looking Jewish man in love says “yes I can” and his beloved steps forward not to object to his risking death but to offer a superior weapon with which to kill, Escape takes on an urgent and unyielding suspense that can only be described as utterly absorbing. “My name is Herschel Zuckerman and don’t you forget it,” one Jew says as he does what must be done. In slow, small steps and segments and unplanned events that intervene with this impossible attempt to flee totalitarianism for freedom, the chosen that choose to resist, fight and kill use ladders, axes, guns, knives and anything within reach to disembody the death camp apparatus by disabling its brains foremost. Bloodied but unbowed, cutting through wires in front of wires and braving mines that blow their comrades apart, man, woman and child thrust, kill and run for their lives in an unforgettable Holocaust drama that should be seen by everyone so they know these heroes were real and once existed in a world now dominated by zombies and pod people.

Together, kapos and Jews run into the woods, valiant unsung fighters of Sobibor who have been overshadowed by topically and thematically inferior cinematic works of pain, misery, tradition, collectivism and playing for time. Escape From Sobibor finishes with a powerful narration by the late ABC News journalist Howard K. Smith, who began with a newsman’s introduction to this dark part of history and the words “this is that story…” and ends with tales of Jews who lived their lives in Connecticut, Israel and Santa Barbara (also, the Soviet Union, which is another, much worse horror story). The telefilm, brought to my attention by a passionate and inspiring war and history scholar who evoked the mythical 300 spartans, concludes as it commences, putting the rousing classical music set to enslavement and death in its proper, rightful context: liberation and life.

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Norman Lear DVD Collection

Norman Lear, creator and developer of several popular 1970s comedies for television, recently appeared at a press conference to promote his new deluxe DVD set, released by Sony today. The 19-disc set is a rehash of previously released first seasons of TV’s All in the Family, The Jeffersons, Maude, Good Times, One Day at a Time, Sanford and Son and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. Their creator and developer, who was somewhat subdued at the presser, looks great and he’s still sharp. His work ages nicely, too.

Maude (1972–1978) is an exception. The CBS comedy starring the late Bea Arthur as strident Maude Findlay was more of a character than a show. The topically feminist-themed program was a spinoff (Mr. Lear’s first) of his vaunted All in the Family (1971–1979), which is based on a British series. While Mr. Lear is liberal and the comedy has that reputation, All in the Family depicted a likable white bigot—imagine such a character being introduced today—who often scored a point. Back then, a character could progress beyond idiocy and Archie Bunker became enlightened (he opened a bar in a later incarnation of the show). So, Mr. Lear reminds us that Archie was not an irredeemable bigot.

Another CBS All in the Family spinoff, The Jeffersons (1975–1985), is among the most successful shows in television. Why? I think it’s partly because the character George Jefferson (Sherman Hemsley) held the show together as one of America’s most persecuted minority: the businessman. Always fresh, lively and interesting, the middle class American family was supported by the dry cleaning business that Mr. Jefferson worked to make profitable and its cast of characters defied stereotypes: sassy maid Florence (Marla Gibbs), quietly rebellious Lionel (Mike Evans), and, in early seasons, mean, old Mother Jefferson (Zara Cully), besides the more widely known characters Louise Jefferson (Isabel Sanford), British Mr. Bentley (Paul Benedict) and the show’s interracial couple, Helen and Tom Willis (Roxie Roker and Franklin Cover). The Jeffersons was a microcosm of America, with foreigners, mixed race kids, college-bound sons, independent women and one strong-minded, self-made businessman who was happiest making money and guiltlessly enjoying the rewards. George Jefferson would not have liked Barack Obama’s economic policies.

Mr. Lear explained that hugely popular The Jeffersons was created to blunt criticism that his other CBS spinoff series, Good Times (1974–1979), portrayed the American black family as poor and unglamorous. Good Times, contrary to its title, layered on layoff after layoff for the Evans family, who lived in a government housing project on Chicago’s South Side, and they could never seem to get out of poverty. That might have been the show’s point—that housing subsidies trap the working poor in a viciously downward economic cycle—but the writers evaded deeper causes and went for laughs, saddling Jimmie Walker as J.J. with the comic relief. In hindsight, the J.J. character is the show’s saving grace. Good Times was created when its matriarch, Florida Evans (Esther Rolle), left her job as a maid for Maude.

That particular connection speaks to Norman Lear’s success. His shows were not merely a platform for the knee-jerk liberal. Black working woman Florida told white liberal housewife Maude off in an episode in which racially obsessed Maude patronized Florida unceasingly and Florida finally begged Maude to leave her alone to do her job. In another episode, one of TV’s best depictions of white liberal guilt, Florida’s replacement, who is also black, quits rather than submit to Maude’s constant racial harassment. Norman Lear created dimensional characters.

Also included on this exclusively first season collection with a disc of features: the satirical Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (1975–1977), which was syndicated, One Day at a Time (1975–1984), and Sanford and Son (1972–1977), Mr. Lear’s only show from this collection not to air on CBS (it ran on NBC). The Los Angeles-based Sanford and Son is built around raunchy comedian Redd Foxx, though not enough credit goes to his onscreen son, played by Demond Wilson, who had the task of playing straight to his conniving old junkyard pop. With no relation to the phrase made popular in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), One Day at a Time followed the lives of a woman (Bonnie Franklin) who divorced her husband after 17 years and moved with her two daughters back to her hometown of Indianapolis, Indiana. One Day at a Time was an example of powerfully topical television programming, with episodes about youth suicide, drugs, job loss, and prejudice against women.

All of these shows, whatever their flaws, combine realistic characterizations with topical plots and humor and any of them are more realistic than the entire slate of today’s overproduced so-called reality shows. The extras—some run longer than others, with some stars in interviews, other stars glaringly absent—are admittedly a disappointment. This highly priced, handsomely packaged collection ($ 159.95) is strictly for those who haven’t bought the original first season products…and miss seeing the intelligent and thoughtful comedy of Norman Lear.