Betty White’s Transcendent Debut as the Happy Homemaker

We all know Betty White is awesome — it’s possible that by now the U.S. citizenship process includes swearing an oath to our patron saint of graceful aging. But it’s worth looking back at the episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show in which she first appears as the delightfully bitchy Sue Ann Nivens, the “Happy Homemaker” of WJM. She’s manic, she’s passive aggressive, she’s delusional, and she’s just plain “bananas,” as Phyllis (Cloris Leachman) aptly puts it. The climactic showdown between Betty and Cloris is a transcendent clash of comedy titans. Betty deserved an Emmy just for her improvised knee-kick to the open oven door.

Seriously, do yourself a favor and indulge:

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Poor Mary…

I have to admit that one of my favorite MTM episodes is “Put on a Happy Face,” in which things go continually wrong for Mary as a journalism awards dinner looms. I thought it was interesting that many of her issues affect her looks–the hair bump, the stuffy nose, a wayward fake eyelash. She even says from onstage, accepting her award: ” I usually look so much better than this.”

It’s a bit disturbing that Mary puts so much stock in her appearance…but then again, don’t we all? Mary is usually so perfect-looking, nary a hair out of place, that it’s fascinating to see her lose it when her appearance for once is beyond her control.

This won’t last long though, as Rhoda knows: “You’re having a lousy streak. I happen to be having a terrific streak. Soon the world will be back to normal. Tomorrow you will meet a crown head of Europe and marry. I will have a fat attack, eat 3000 peanut butter cups and die.”

Discovering Mary in 2012

It wasn’t until my feminist role model Jennifer mentioned The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s forward-thinking plotlines (birth control in the 70s!) that I felt compelled to dive into the fabulously free Hulu archives and find out for myself why this TV show had earned its reputation as a classic. I watched the first few episodes and was genuinely surprised by my experience. I had assumed MTM would feel dated; its themes stale, distracting my attention the same way that Dana Scully’s awful 90s pantsuits prevent me from loving old X-Files episodes. It’s a testament to the show’s fantastic writing (and the revival of many fantastic ’70s trends) that the show feels not only relevant, but also refreshing in its honest and authentic portrayal of women.

Considering these women existed in a world of bell bottoms and berets, I did not expect to relate to Mary Richards and Rhoda the way I did. As a single 20-something New York woman working in television (as an Associate Producer!), I found much more in common with these women than Carrie Bradshaw and her brunch-loving company. Instead of a glamorized, sleek version of professional and personal struggles, Mary faces conflicts that are relevant and relatable 40 years later. One moment that struck close to home for me occurred when Lou Grant drunkenly comes knocking on Mary’s door, causing Mary to suspect, for the first time, that her typing skills weren’t the only reason she was hired at this company. I doubt any confident woman has not had the same suspicions during interviews.

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What’s Mary Richards Really Like? Apparently, a fashion fiend …

The red dress from the beginning of the episode.

No doubt Mary Richards’ clothes make a huge impact. Costumer Leslie Hall often hogged a good portion of the audience warm-up time at weekly tapings just answering questions about Mary’s gorgeous working-girl-but still-feminine duds. This couldn’t be clearer than in the third-season episode “What’s Mary Richards Really Like?,” about a vitriolic male newspaper columnist wanting to interview Mary about being the only woman in the newsroom at WJM. (You can watch the whole episode on Hulu here.)

This script was written by bombshell Susan Silver, who, just to give you some context, was interviewed for a similar article at the time about being a female comedy writer, and it ran under the headline “The Writer Wears Hot Pants.” And yes, she posed for the photo next to her typewriter, in hot pants, and looked great. Hilariously, the first third of this entire episode is essentially about Mary’s clothes. She starts out in her apartment trying on a gorgeous fire-engine red dress and scarf when Rhoda brings her a matching purse to borrow. “When I want to wear my purse, can I borrow your dress?” Rhoda cracks. “And your figure?” Mary wonders if she should wear something more conservative for the interview and pulls out a suit, though Rhoda says that will make her look like an usher. (She is correct.) Rhoda asks if the interviewer is a man, and when Mary says yes, Rhoda pulls out a silky purple number, suggesting Mary wear just that. “It’s a blouse,” Mary chides her.

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