Legends return to television

Icons: The ABC movie `Mary and Rhoda' will catch us up with the lives of the older and wiser pair played by Mary Tyler Moore and Valerie Harper.

January 17, 2000|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

LOS ANGELES -- One could turn the world on with her smile. The other could turn the most embarrassing moment into a punch line full of belly laughs. Mary Richards and Rhoda Morgenstern were network television's prime-time response to changing attitudes of and toward women in the 1960s and '70s.

While the term television icon is now applied to almost anyone who lasts more than six weeks in a prime-time series, Mary really is one: a media template for the single career woman defined by who she is rather than the man with whom she keeps company. Mary is still being imitated today on series like "Suddenly Susan" and "Just Shoot Me" more than 20 years after "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" left the air.

But the originals themselves are coming back in the made-for-TV movie, "Mary and Rhoda," that will air Feb. 2 as one of ABC's major sweeps events.

The film finds Mary recently widowed by the death of her husband, a U.S. congressman, while Rhoda is fresh off the divorce of her husband, a philandering Frenchman with whom she has been living in Paris for the past decade. The two old pals (whose friendship had foundered on the rocks of Mary's objections to Rhoda's husband) reunite in New York where Mary now lives.

While the film has a number of fine comedic moments, one of its most striking and impressive aspects is how straightforward and honest it is in chronicling the hard times and demeaning options Mary and Rhoda face as they try to re-enter the work force as women in their 50s and 60s. For all the laughs, it reminds you how socially conscious their sitcoms were.

The women behind the characters, Mary Tyler Moore and Valerie Harper, sat down with reporters over the weekend here on the Winter Press Tour, to talk about the film, their careers and the images of women in American television.

Moore didn't pull any punches when asked whether art was imitating life in the film's depiction of career options for women of a certain age.

"I think you can't help but reflect what goes on in society, whether it's in movies or television. And, unfortunately, that is a fact of life and a tradition that is hard apparently for some people to let go of: That the minute menopause hits, women are no longer interesting," she said.

"And we took that as our challenge in this movie -- to show that it does not, in fact, make sense. But, yeah, you'll find that in movie-making the tendency is still to stay with the young and sexy and bouncy and cute and adorable, and that's good. But I'd like to see some character interaction and dealing with subjects that are also important in life," she said.

Harper went her one better, saying, "Aging is so inevitable, and we should start embracing it. And it's just so American, this just absolute obsession with shelf life, particularly for women. Men are what they do, but women are how they look or how young they are.

"It's a problem in business and life, and this film really addresses that. I don't know a lot of movies where people say they're 60 several times or in their late 50s as ours does," she added referring to a sequence with Mary bouncing from one job interview to another changing her look and scaling her answers down from 60 in answer to questions about her age.

Characters' reactions

In fact, in watching the film, it is kind of tough to see our beloved Mare going through this demeaning interview process. But, then, the humor in the sitcoms grew out of the way Mary and Rhoda reacted to the knocks, bumps and humiliations they faced in trying to carve out identities as women.

When asked for their favorite episodes from "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," Moore said, "for me there are two. One was `Chuckles Bites the Dust,' which I think was everybody's favorite," Moore said, referring to a sitcom classic in dark humor that dealt with the death of a TV clown named Chuckles.

"But the other one," Moore continued, "is the episode in which everything went wrong for Mary, who up until that time had been thought of as always perfect and never too troubled or messed up. In this episode, her hair looked terrible, and she had a cold. Her eyelashes fell off, and she twisted her ankle. And she had to wear Rhoda's dress to a big awards dinner where she wound up winning the award. And so she goes up to the microphone and says, `I usually look a lot cuter than this.' That was my all-time favorite."

One of Harper's favorites, she said, "was one with Mary and me having to put on bridesmaids dresses that looked like Little Bo Peep. And it was interesting, because those are the kinds of things that happened on Mary's show with female writers being given the chance to write about things that were specifically female. I think every woman has climbed into an ugly dress for a friend's wedding."

Moore and Harper said they were fully aware of the dangers of bringing their characters back to screen life.

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