When I think of Mary Tyler Moore, the subject of James Adolphus’s documentary, “Being Mary Tyler Moore,” my mind immediately brings up “Chuckles Bites the Dust,” a sixth-season episode of her 1970s groundbreaking sitcom, “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” Chuckles was a children’s show clown who worked at Mary’s TV station. He bit the dust in a very ironic way: He went to a circus parade dressed like a peanut, and “a rogue elephant tried to shell him.”
“Being Mary Tyler Moore” premieres on MAX Friday.
Moore’s comic timing in this episode is impeccable, especially in the funeral scene where, after chastising her co-workers for the gallows humor they used to cope, she can’t contain her laughter during the clown’s eulogy. “Chuckles” remains one of the funniest, most poignant meditations on death I’ve ever seen. In fact, TV Guide once voted it the greatest episode of sitcom television.
That accolade was just another feather in Mary Tyler Moore’s cap. “Being Mary Tyler Moore” gives Chuckles his due in one of the numerous clips showcasing Moore’s talent. Adolphus and his editor, Mariah Rehmet, sprinkle in clips from Moore’s earliest days as a dancing Hotpoint dishwasher spokesmodel to her big breakthrough as Laura Petrie on the 1960s sitcom “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” They even dredge up that awful movie she made with Elvis, 1969′s “Change of Habit,” where she played a nun.
But it’s the clip that opens this movie that sets in motion its exploration of how Moore changed the entertainment landscape for women in front of, and behind, the camera. The footage is from a March 1966 interview David Susskind conducted with Moore just before she won her second Emmy. You should have heard the protests from my audience.
They had good reason to protest: Susskind’s comments were incredibly sexist, even for 1966. He called women “wretched nags” and said Laura Petrie was “a strained idolization of the American woman as she thinks she is.” Moore humored him (though you can tell she wasn’t happy) before stating that more wives should consider the workforce. “It will not hurt the family,” she continued. “I’m doing it!”
“Women should be human beings first, women second, and wives and mothers third,” she said, referencing Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique.”
With the help of “Mary Tyler Moore Show” co-creator James L. Brooks, Moore would channel those ideas into Mary Richards, the single Minneapolis TV exec for WJM-TV she played on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” Richards, who famously flung her hat in the air at the beginning of every episode, was seen as a model of a more liberated woman at the time.
Through the production company she founded with her then husband, Grant Tinker, MTM Productions (whose mascot, Mimsie the Cat, was ubiquitous on your TV if you grew up in the 1970s and ′80s), Moore was able to hire more women writers and directors than any other show at the time. One of those writers, Treva Silverman, discusses the importance of the actions she took as women fought for equal opportunity in the workplace.
Moore was also the spokesperson for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, a position she held until her death in 2017. She discovered her own diabetes back in 1968, the film tells us.
“Being Mary Tyler Moore” doesn’t leave out the tragedies in Moore’s life, such as the accidental death of her only son, Richard. Nor does it ignore her desire to break from the nice-girl image her TV success created for her. One successful attempt at against-type casting was 1980′s “Ordinary People,” in which she portrays the emotionally brittle mother of a suicidal son in therapy, played by Timothy Hutton. Her performance was a jarring 180-degree turn that netted Moore her sole Oscar nomination.
Fans of Mary Tyler Moore will find much to love and learn in “Being Mary Tyler Moore.” My one complaint is that the documentary occasionally drags and feels repetitive during its two-hour runtime. Otherwise, this is a fine tribute to a trailblazer.
BEING MARY TYLER MOORE
Directed by James Adolphus. Starring Mary Tyler Moore. On MAX. 119 minutes. PG (nothing rougher than a few “Oh Robs” and some “Mr. Graaaants.”)
Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic.