SXSW: Mary Tyler Moore Doc Director on TV Star’s Legacy
“Mary’s an easy person to fall in love with,” says the filmmaker James Adolphus, who has spent the past three years making a documentary about Hollywood icon Mary Tyler Moore.
In Being Mary Tyler Moore, which HBO will release in May after a March 13 premiere at SXSW, Adolphus documents Moore’s career, interweaving professional highlights like the Dick Van Dyke Show and the Mary Tyler Moore Show, with inclusions from an extensive personal archive. The goal is to show Moore’s impact entertainment and on generations of women. One of those women is the documentary’s producer, Lena Waithe.
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After Moore passed in 2017, Adolphus says, her husband Robert Levine was tasked with keeping the star’s legacy but was unsure how to go about it. There were offers from other filmmakers to tell Moore’s life story but he was unconvinced until reading a Vanity Fair 2018 cover story of Lena Waithe where she is photographed watching an episode of the Mary Tyler Moore show. Waithe later told THR that she wanted to do a Moore biopic, saying, “I read her autobiography more times than I can count.”
Ahead of the film’s SXSW premiere, Adolphus tells The Hollywood Reporter that Levine “ found it remarkable that a young, unapologetically Black and queer woman from the south side of Chicago was giving this massive shout-out to Mary.” Levine partnered with Waithe’s Hillman Grad banner, while Adolphus, whose credits included Soul of a Nation, was working with Waithe on a project that was set up at the ill-fated Quibi. When that project was sidelined, Waithe presented him with the possibility of a Moore documentary.
The director read Moore’s autobiography and felt an immediate kinship: “I’m Black and Puerto Rican. The glass ceiling that’s set by white male patriarchy, is something I understand well.” The star spent much of her career as a feminist symbol, fighting against a male-dominated field, both onscreen and within Hollywood.
The film opens with a 1966 television interview with Moore conducted by David Susskind, who goes on a diatribe about the relationship between wives and husbands, lobbing questions like: “Don’t you think working mothers, whatever their jobs, sort of shortchange their children emotionally?” With sixty years’ worth of hindsight, the line of questioning can easily inspire indignation. Says Adolphus, “It was so infuriating to watch Mary go through that, and then I love that she holds her own and quotes Betty Friedan. What David Susskind represents is the thing that Mary has to fight against for the rest of her life.”
The doc features audio testimonials from Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Phylicia Rashad, James L. Brooks and Norman Lear, but it is Moore herself who takes the audience through the entirety of her career. The documentary is largely told through Moore’s voice, using audio from career-spanning interviews taken from various late night and talk show appearances. She tracks her childhood in New York and move to Los Angeles, where dancing ambitions became an acting career, landing her on the Dick Van Dyke Show and her eventual eponymous sitcom and production company.
It also goes over Moore’s relationship with her son and her stepchildren, as well as her three marriages. Adolphus worked with Levine to pull old photographs and home videos from the personal archive, including a precious video from Moore’s bridal shower ahead of marrying Levine. All in, the edit took 50 weeks, with the entire documentary some three years in the making.
While the doc is expansive, hitting on major touchstones of a decades-long career, Adolphus notes there is one facet of Moore that the filmmakers were unable to include, which was Moore’s sexual assault at just six years old by a family friend. The actress wrote about the experience in her autobiography but, Adolphus says, there is no audio of her speaking about the incident.
“Mary went out of her way and her sixties to include it in her book. And she did that for a reason. And I think it was incredibly brave,” says the director, who offers that Moore’s willingness to write about her history with assault has helped him share his own sexual assault experience.
After SXSW, Being Mary Tyler Moore, which was produced by Debra Martin Chase Ben Selkow, in addition to Waithe and in association with Fifth Season, will be available both on HBO and streaming service HBO Max. Adolphus hopes that audiences, whether they are fans of Moore’s or being introduced to her through the documentary, see themselves in her story.
“I think folks think about Mary, and they think a woman who was an actor who was on TV,” says the director. “I didn’t grow up watching her. I wasn’t a Mary Tyler Moore fan. I just fell in love with Mary Tyler Moore, the human being who was up against — not all of the things — but many of the things that I faced in life too.”