The film begins with David Susskind interviewing Moore in the 1960s about her role as Laura Petrie on “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” His questions are shockingly offensive by today’s standards, as he condescendingly discourses on how women stop listening to men after they get married. He describes Laura’s sweetness and satisfaction with her life as a full-time wife and mother as impossibly idealized. Moore stays calm but firm and makes it clear that, first, Laura was far from perfect, and second, she herself agreed with Betty Friedan, one of the founders of the women’s movement, that the ideal was being “a human first, a woman second, and wives and mothers third.”
The documentary has several archival clips from other televised interviews. One brief exchange with David Letterman has Moore smiling as she sets firm boundaries around what she wants to reveal about herself. Extended clips from a long Rona Barrett interview show her openness to revealing, introspective conversations. Later interviews, especially those about her alcoholism and her blissful third marriage, to a doctor 18 years younger than she was, are even more candid. When he is behind the camera, it is as though she is looking at us with love brimming from her every pore.
That doctor, Robert Levine, is a producer of this documentary, which means that the filmmakers had access to home movies. Many are taken by him, which gives us the truest sense of Moore in intimate settings, with friends and her mother at her bridal shower, on the farm she shared with Levine and her horses and dogs. In those moments, she’s relaxed and not trying to perform for anyone, though in one moment, she apologizes for not wearing makeup.
It is difficult in 2023 to understand how revolutionary Laura Petrie and Mary Richards were for audiences in the 1960s and ’70s. We get a sense of it from Susskind’s misogynistic questions and hearing that the network executives did not want Laura to wear pants and then agreed only if they did not “cup” her derriere. (Sitcom housewives of the ’60s vacuumed and dusted in dresses, heels, and pearls.) The suits would not allow Mary Richards to be a divorcee and fussed over a subtle indicator that she was sexually active.