She had the same job in the sixties and seventies that Ginger Rogers had in the thirties and forties and Jennifer Aniston (who will be the last) had in the nineties and yesterday.
The job description was simple: Dancer’s grace, improbable cheekbones, trouper. Must be able to hang with the kooks without becoming one. Must be able to represent the normals without forgetting you belong to us, improbabilities and all.
Of the thousands who applied, only a handful–mostly children of Show Biz–managed to grab a moment.
Only those three were able to make a career of it.
And, of those, our Mary may have had the hardest job, if only because we asked her to represent “normalcy” at the moment when the concept was shifting at light speed from the old paradigm to the new.
The new paradigm is no paradigm at all. Normalcy is the new tyranny. But that isn’t her fault. We couldn’t have asked for better representation.
Of course, like any woman who resolves too many contradictions without seeming to sweat, she was deemed “difficult.” Any good looking female who makes it look easy while holding that much power over our imaginations is bound to get a reputation. (Ginger was a puppet, Jen a lightweight. It’s always something). Personally I never cared. If being difficult was what it took for her to be what she was, then it was worth every bottle of Pepto every producer in Hollywood ever poured down his throat.
She did such a good job of being difficult that, before all was said and done, she was one of the handful to ever be part of the DNA of two iconic television shows, one of which carried her name, and had a host of Emmys, a Tony, an Oscar nomination and most everything else we could throw at her. If we didn’t throw anything at her for her portrayal of Mary Todd Lincoln in Gore Vidal’s Lincoln–which was probably the finest performance of her career, so good that, just be existing, it kept Sally Field’s turn in the more recent Spielberg movie from ever lifting off–it was probably because not enough of us could make the shift in our minds.
Not that I imagine too many people ever thought she was “really” Laura Petrie or Mary Richards, in the way that we thought James Garner just might be Bret Maverick or Jim Rockford. But that only made her more improbable, not a whit less valuable. Actors, after all, the iconic ones at least, have the reverse job of most who seek space in our heads, including other actors. We’re forced to measure their value separately. For them, it is not the being, but the doing that matters. It’s the doing that matters–to us and to them–even in those rare instances where we dare to suppose their being and doing are one and the same.
It wasn’t finally important for Mary Tyler Moore to be Mary Richards, any more than it was for James Garner to be Jim Rockford. It was only important for them to do.
And the vital thing for those of us in the cheap seats–be it Broadway balcony, metroplex cushion, or the recliner in the den–was to be allowed to eradicate the distance in our minds for that time that they chose to represent us.
No one represented us more, or longer, or better, when, not so very long ago, there was an “us.”