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Appreciation: Mary Tyler Moore on film: In ‘Ordinary People,’ an extraordinary transformation

‘Ordinary People’
Donald Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore in the 1980 film “Ordinary People,” directed by Robert Redford.
(Paramount Studios)
Film Critic

In the final scene of “Christine,” Antonio Campos’ 2016 drama about the short life and tragic death of a Florida-based TV news reporter named Christine Chubbuck, a woman returns home after a terrible day at work, scoops herself some ice cream and throws on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” She doesn’t really watch it, but she sings along, sadly and quietly, to the theme song: “We’re gonna make it after all” never sounded so forlorn.

It’s a risky reference, drawing a ghoulish contrast between “Christine’s” drab, unhappy vision of 1970s broadcasting with its warm, upbeat network-sitcom counterpart. But it also speaks to the enduring power of the image that Moore carved out in her namesake series — that of a joyous, resilient career woman whose famous grin seemed like one of TV’s endlessly renewable resources, capable of buoying our spirits to the end.

Of course, Moore’s most famous film role — the one that earned her an Academy Award nomination for lead actress — represented a chilling inversion of everything we thought we knew about her. In “Ordinary People,” Robert Redford’s 1980 drama about the emptiness lurking beneath the facade of white, upper-middle-class propriety, Moore played Beth Jarrett, a model wife and mother permanently warped by tragedy. Still grieving the untimely loss of her firstborn child, Buck, she withdraws emotionally from her husband (Donald Sutherland) and turns her fury on their younger son, Conrad (Timothy Hutton).

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In Moore’s performance, every curt remark and slight becomes an act of passive aggression, a way of withholding a mother’s love. Unable or unwilling to comfort Conrad in his own troubled moments, she stiffens like an automaton when he tries to hug her. When he’s not hungry enough to eat the French toast she’s made him, she whisks the plate away, repaying one form of rejection with another.

Moore doesn’t entirely extinguish that dazzling smile; we even see Beth laughing along with Buck, in a brief flashback to happier days. But she does put it to coolly subversive use. At social gatherings she turns her grin into a shield, a mask of contentment that can clench, without warning, into a reproving stare.

“Ordinary People” is an easy enough film to dismiss today, partly because it beat Martin Scorsese’s “Raging Bull” for the best picture Oscar, and partly because its insights into suburban malaise soon became widely circulated clichés. (The ambitious, tortured wife played by Annette Bening in “American Beauty” is merely the most obvious of Beth Jarrett’s many descendants.)

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Some critics weren’t taken with Redford’s film from the get-go, or with Moore’s showily unshowy transformation. Pauline Kael wrote, “As this Wasp witch, whose face is so tense you expect it to crack, Mary Tyler Moore … seems to be doing penance for having given audiences a good time.”

There is indeed a kind of penitent, self-flagellating quality to Beth, and Moore’s performance is powerful in part because it represents such a cruel negation of her comic persona. After the actress’ transformation from a fulfilled housewife on “The Dick Van Dyke Show” into a single career woman on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” Beth Jarrett was a terrifying reversal, a version of Laura Petrie gone mesmerizingly wrong.

So gale-force dominant was Moore in the world of television that her big-screen performances were relatively few and far between. She tap-danced winningly in an elevator with Julie Andrews in “Thoroughly Modern Millie” (1967), and donned a nun’s wimple to star opposite Elvis Presley in the ill-fated “Change of Habit” (1969) — Presley’s last movie, and her last one until “Ordinary People” came along 11 years later.

In 1986 she co-starred with Christine Lahti in “Just Between Friends,” a comedy written and directed by “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” co-creator Allan Burns. But it took David O. Russell to renew her comic spark in the brilliant “Flirting With Disaster” (1996), in which Moore, as Ben Stiller’s tart-tongued adoptive mother, unleashed a small storm of comic neuroses.

Her last film was the little-seen 2009 drama “Against the Current,” about a grief-stricken young man drifting hopelessly down the Hudson River. The movie was a slog, but at least there was Moore, popping up in a typically lively and enchantingly random cameo. She was a scene-stealer to the end — spirited, glorious, and anything but ordinary.

justin.chang@latimes.com

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