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Mary Tyler Moore Was Even Better When She Wasn’t Playing America’s Sweetheart

‘Ordinary People’ dealt openly with the idea that not every woman wants to be a mother and not every woman loves her child

Most people's introduction to Mary Tyler Moore was through TV. She was either the gamely devoted wife on The Dick Van Dyke Show, or the toothy, thirtysomething city girl, cheekily tossing her hat into the air at the end of “Love Is All Around.” In 1980, Moore was exiting a decade spent redefining what women’s roles could look like — both on television and in the workplace — with her turn as Mary Richards on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Over the course of The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s seven seasons, millions of Americans watched as Mary negotiated her job as a producer at a TV news station. And while the comedy always remained as breezy as Moore’s haircut, Mary Richards tackled feminist issues from equal pay to infidelity to prostitution. In Moore’s hands, Mary Richards became the prototype for generations of television protagonists to follow, and unlike Carrie Bradshaw, Mary was single and she stayed single. She was the embodiment of the modern woman, never [clutches pearls] marrying on the show.

Which is why Moore’s Oscar-nominated turn in the 1980 film Ordinary People might as well have come from a different universe. Ordinary People is the story of Conrad Jarrett, a high school student struggling with the death of his brother, who drowned in a boating accident that Conrad survived. The film begins about a year after the incident, as Conrad is encouraged into therapy by his concerned and devoted father, Calvin. Mary Tyler Moore plays Conrad’s mother, Beth. And as Beth Jarrett, the warmth that had defined Mary Richards was replaced by an indifferent void. If Mary Tyler Moore had become an icon of female empowerment, working to make workplace feminism not just visible but approachable and attractive for women across the country, Ordinary People gave audiences the chance to view the role of motherhood from a perspective that included the reality of pain, rejection, and cruelty.

Beth is the mother of two sons, one living and one dead. Beth enjoys the theater. She’s game to belt out an off-key but enthusiastic round of “What I Did for Love” if the occasion demands. She keeps up with her social obligations, always on top of which of the neighbor children is having their first Halloween or which family is about to take a trip to Idaho. She loves her husband — they have an active sex life, they flirt, they joke. She moves through her world with the fluidity of one of the practiced actors she chuckles at onstage. That is, until it’s time to interact with her grief-stricken son Conrad.

Unable to summon the grace she musters for appearances with strangers, Beth interacts with Conrad from behind a veil of politeness that disintegrates with every step her son takes to re-engage with the world around him. She cooks Conrad breakfast only to flush it down the drain at the first sign of any refusal. She startles when he catches her in his brother’s old room. She picks a fight with Calvin when he tells their friends that Conrad is seeing a psychiatrist.

Moore was nominated in the Lead Actress category at the Oscars, despite only being onscreen for about a third of the film. But her stony Beth Jarrett haunts every therapy session, every monologue, every first date. Every ginger step Conrad takes to free himself of the trauma that has gripped him since his brother’s death must pass over the ice of Beth’s one-woman winter. The image of Beth’s frozen smile seems to float just underneath every surface, identical in every material way to sunny Mary Richards, but somehow removed from the source of kindness that had once made Moore into an American sweetheart.

Today, we have the words to describe what’s happening to a woman when she is unable to bond with a child at birth. Postpartum depression is a common part of the public discourse on women’s mental health. Now, we have treatment plans and celebrity spokespeople. But the hatred — or, worse, the emptiness — that Beth feels is aimed at a child who is near adulthood. The animosity escalated with Conrad’s involvement in his brother’s death, and maybe the easiest interpretation of Ordinary People is that all of Beth’s resentment can be pinned down to the moment Buck died. But in Moore’s performance there are suggestions of a more complicated fracture, a crack that spread from the base of Beth and Conrad’s relationship.

Medical language, especially when it comes to mental illness, depersonalizes the damage we do to our relationships by identifying the chemical causes for actions that exist beyond our control: It’s not your heart that rejects your loved ones, but your hormones. But Moore plays Beth Jarrett’s coldness to Conrad as personal, regardless of what triggered her break with him. It’s the specific way Conrad’s eyes seek hers that Beth can’t stomach. It’s the specific way he cowers that makes her run from cameras. It’s the specific edge in his voice that sends her running from the garden to the dining room. Moore’s performance is a catalogue of resentment — her behaviors articulate an emotional language that even 40 years later we have yet to develop in words. What is our term for maternal rejection when we can’t explain away the alienation by pointing to a change in hormone levels? Do we know what to call love that isn’t spread equally between children? How do you classify a depressive person when she experiences only selective dissociation? In a world where Dr. Spock has been replaced by mommy blogs and posed family photos have been outsourced to casual-yet-curated Instagrams, would we feel brave enough to speak the words that would describe our own Beth Jarretts even if we did know them?

Watching Beth Jarrett doesn’t feel nice, her bottomless anger doesn’t feel encouraging, and unlike Moore’s work on television, her performance in Ordinary People doesn’t immediately register as empowering. However, Moore’s performance offers audiences a rare chance to reckon openly with the reality that not every woman loves their child, not every woman wants to be a mother, not every woman desires vulnerability. The will to create new avenues for women’s lives is a feminist cause that requires empathy not only for the women whose lives we want to emulate, but also for those we are inclined to avoid. To her great credit, Mary Tyler Moore wasn’t afraid to embody either.