-Heathers The Musical (pls)
-Phantom Of The Opera
-In The Heights
-21 Chump Street
-Rocky Horror Picture Show
-Silence! The Musical
-Lots and Lots of musicals
After five seasons playing “America’s favorite TV wife” on The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-1966), Mary Tyler Moore – whose recent passing we honour here in the Parallel Julieverse – was keen to parlay her TV celebrity into big screen stardom. She had already made a feature film a few years earlier – the low-budget docudrama X-15 in 1961 – but her role was minor and the picture was quickly forgotten.
She didn’t have to wait long to act on her cinematic ambitions. Soon after her TV series was cancelled, Lew Wasserman, head of Universal Pictures, signed Moore to a lucrative seven-year, ten-picture contract (Moore, 116). Drawn by her popular girl-next-door TV image, Wasserman aimed to make Moore “the next Doris Day”, putting her in “light situation comedies” and building on her flair for domestic-based situational humour and mild-mannered sex appeal (Oppenheimer, 1967, 4). With an estimated quarter of a million dollars pencilled for
her promotion (Heffernan, 92), Universal set about giving her “the Doris Day build-up” (Oppenheimer, 1967, 4). Seen
here is a selection of star portraits of Moore taken by a Universal staff photographer in 1966, and you don’t need to look hard to detect the ‘pert and peppy’ Doris Day styling.
One of these portraits was used as the official ‘star shot’ for Moore’s first film assignment at Universal, Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967) – the splashy Julie Andrews film musical which is celebrating its 50th Anniversary this year. Possibly because Millie was helmed by Ross Hunter, Universal’s top producer and the man who had helped shaped the careers of both Doris Day and Sandra Dee, studio execs figured it would be an ideal vehicle for Moore’s big screen debut. Director George Roy Hill was less convinced. In fact, he was frank in his belief that Moore – “a hell of an actress” of whom “I grew very fond” – was essentially “wrong for the part” (Horton, 187). Even Moore had misgivings. She later recalled: “I saw the part of ‘Miss Dorothy’ [in Thoroughly Modern Millie]….as
a good example of miscasting…I thought of
myself as an exuberant, spirited type, not the shy, well-mannered (to
the point of being insensitive) rich girl” (Moore, 117). Universal
insisted, however, and, with perseverance and deft help from Hill, Moore managed to find a way into the character, turning in a winning performance that earned generally strong notices.
The fact that Moore made her bow at Universal in a major roadshow musical – the studio’s biggest production in years – and in second billing to Julie Andrews, no less, is a sure sign of the grand ambitions the studio had for their new star-in-the-making. During the final weeks of shooting, however, a spanner was thrown in the works by New York theatre impresario David Merrick. The legendary showman and producer behind such mega Broadway hits as Gypsy, Hello, Dolly! and I Do! I Do! – offered Moore the lead role in his big new stage musical of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. For Moore, who had originally trained as a dancer and always wanted appear in a Broadway show, it was “the fulfillment of my lifetime ambition” (Thomas, 6-C).
Not surprisingly, Universal didn’t quite share their star’s enthusiasm but, after tense negotiations that Moore called “the
hardest battle I’d ever fought” (Moore, 119), they granted her a reprieve from her contract. The studio insisted on two provisos: Moore would not play matinees and thus make herself available for daytime film shooting in New York, and she would have to give up right of approval on future film projects. As Moore recounts, “I
when Breakfast at Tiffany’s had finished its run I would be so big a star they
wouldn’t dare ask me to do a less-than-great script, so, not to worry” (119).
Significantly, Moore claims that Julie, “who managed to make me feel like a sister”, was a great ally during this period. “I turned to
her for the fervor
boosters I needed to sell Broadway to the studio, and
when we said good-bye she gave me a beautiful silver box from Tiffany’s, with
my name engraved on it, filled with her favorite throat lozenges” (120).
The lozenges would surely have come in handy as Moore – who had never before sung on stage, let alone headlined a big Broadway musical – had to put in months of marathon voice training. “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” she cried, “Nothing I’ve ever done in dancing has been this strenuous. Singing on the stage requires special technique and I wind up a session with my back aching from having to project” (Thomas, 6-C). Sadly, her efforts would prove in vain.
To call Breakfast at Tiffany’s a disaster would be an understatement. It was a “pioneer super-flop” (Steyn, 269). Despite a creative dream team – music and lyrics by Bob Merrill, book by Abe Burrows, choreography by Michael Kidd, production design by Oliver Smith – and the pre-sold lure of the Truman Capote novella and beloved Audrey Hepburn film, Breakfast at Tiffany’s struggled to find its footing. Throughout its long seven week period of out-of-town tryouts, the show was subject to endless rewriting and rescoring. At one point, celebrated dramatist Edward Albee, who had never before worked on a musical, was brought in to overhaul the book and the cast often found themselves playing new material each night (Mandelbaum, 15-19).
A seasoned pro would have struggled under such conditions, but for an inexperienced stage novice like Mary Tyler Moore it proved overwhelming. Her performance “drew responses from the audience that I have nightmares about today,” the actress later recalled, and her out-of-town notices were scathing (Moore, 124). Even critics inclined to diplomacy struggled: “Let us be kind and say the lovely Miss Moore was tired and worn out…her voice was hoarse and strained, and her singing quality was poor…Perhaps she will improve with a little rest” (Allen, 37). Rumours swirled that the star was on the verge of being fired, with Diahann Carroll, Tracy Grimes, and Sally Anne Howes all tapped as possible replacements (Eder, 8-B).
In the end, producer David Merrick opted to put Moore and everyone else out of their misery by closing the show in New York after just four previews. In a signature act of grand showmanship, he took out full page advertisements in the local press declaring his decision to fold before opening night “rather than subject the drama critics and the the theater-going public…to an excruciatingly boring evening.” “It’s my own Bay of Pigs,” he said, “It simply didn’t work out” (”Merrick Chokes”, 1). Moore put on a brave face but would later confess : “I told everybody that doing Breakfast at Tiffany’s had strengthened and enriched me and that I had developed valuable scar tissue to make me tougher. Except that none of that was true” (”Rhoda and Mary”, 59).
Thus, in early 1967, Moore suddenly found herself back in Hollywood, trying to pick up the threads of her stalled film career. Thoroughly Modern Millie was, by this stage, about to be released and the star hit the promotion trail hard, as much one suspects to put a positive spin on her recent travails as to publicize the new release. “Of course I’m happy to be back in Hollywood” she beamed to reporters, “If I had my way I’d go right from one picture to another” (Scott, 1967, 15). It wasn’t long before Moore was in fact back on another picture…but it was no Thoroughly ModernMillie.
Even though Moore had only been gone a matter of months, she returned to a Hollywood in the grips of sudden change. Sliding headlong into the “worst economic slump since the war” (Schatz, 21), the industry was struggling to keep pace with the seismic cultural shifts of the late-sixties and most of the major studios were revising production schedules in a panic. “By
the time I emerged from the Breakfast at Tiffany’s nightmare,” Moore reflected, “Universal, for
whom I was supposed to carry the sophisticated-comedy banner, had changed its focus and was no longer putting thought or big
budgets into small comedies” (126). Moreover, because she had ceded right of approval, Moore had to accept whatever projects she was assigned.
Universal threw her into two pictures in quick succession.The first, Don’t Just Stand There (1968) saw Moore play second-fiddle to Robert Wagner in a lowbrow sex comedy that Variety noted was a “perfect throwback to the movies that Hollywood ground out in the panic of 1946″ when “much in the manner of a tourist in a strange land who yells louder when he is not understood, [it] simply made movies more rapidly and with a desperate lack of discrimination” (cited in Parmentier, 339). The whole thing was so confused and poorly crafted that one critic who caught the film as
inflight entertainment quipped, “If the emergency door hadn’t been
locked I would have jumped” (Harris, 124).
Moore’s next effort, What’s So Bad About Feeling Good? (1968) was not much better. An attempt at topical social satire, the film paired Moore with George Peppard as a pair of rooftop dwelling hippies in New York’s Greenwich Village who stumble across a tropical toucan carrying a magical virus that spreads delirious happiness to all who come into contact…and, yes, you read that right! Made by veteran Hollywood director George Seaton, the film sported handsome visuals but it was a gimmick comedy with more cringes than laughs. Despite its pointed references to bead-wearing hippies and all-you-need-is-love flower power, What’s So Bad was lumberingly old-fashioned. It “has the point of view of an insular, slightly out-of-date Hollywood,” wrote Vincent Canby of The New York Times, and is “as anti-intellectual and—in some ways—as uninformed as the people and institutions it purports to satirize” (cited in Parmentier, 219). The film tanked at the box office and, to this day, has never been released to video or DVD. In her autobiography, Moore glosses it with a single-line dismissal
as “another of the crowning mistakes to come out of my contract with
On paper, Moore’s fourth – and as it would transpire – final film for Universal, Change of Habit (1969) had the makings of a career upgrade. Based on the true life story of an American nun famed for her pioneering work in juvenile speech therapy, the film was originally conceived as an entry in the mini-cycle of “feisty nun” pictures, popular in the wake of The Sound of Music (”Film Planned”, 12). Indeed, the project come out of an initial story idea by John Furia, the man who had crafted The Singing Nun (1966) for Debbie Reynolds. By the time Moore was announced to play the lead in late 1968, Richard Morris, a fellow Thoroughly Modern Millie alumnus, had taken over scripwriting duties, and the film was firming up as a semi-musical star vehicle for Moore (“Miss Moore”, IV-11).
Everything changed, however, at the start of 1969 when it was suddenly announced that Elvis Presley had been signed to the picture. The aging rock idol had been fishing around for a screen property that would allow him to break out of the formulaic pop musicals with which he was most associated and try something with a bit more weight (Neibaur, 253ff). For some reason, he and/or Universal thought Change of Habit would be the go. That the film was a musical biopic about a nun was incidental, a new screenwriting team was brought in to develop an entirely new treatment for what had suddenly become “an Elvis Presley picture”
(“‘Habit’”, IV-19). In the new version, Presley stars as a streetwise doctor who runs a community clinic in an impoverished inner-city ‘ghetto’. Moore’s role was reworked as one of three nuns who join the clinic as plain-clothes community workers, whereupon a semi-romantic friendship develops between the Presley and Moore characters.
With "the King” on board, the whole film changed focus and tenor. Out went the headstrong nun and in came the brooding guitar-strumming medic. As one columnist noted wryly, “the entire story’s being rewritten
to build up the male lead with who knows what left for Mary. One thing,
she’s been dropped to second billing” (Bradford, 24). Her role was
even further weakened with the addition of the other two support nuns, played by Barbara McNair and Jane Elliot, both of whom were given their own competing subplots.
In the end, it was possibly a small mercy for Moore that she didn’t carry the star load in Change of Habit for the film was what she herself called “a dud” (Moore, 126). Almost universally panned by critics – The Los Angeles Times described it “as discomfiting as listening to
chalk screech across a blackboard” (Thomas, IV-21), and Newsweek dissed it as “The Sound of Music goes slumming” (Bonderoff, 117) – Change of Habit bombed at the box-office, peaking at #17th place in its opening week and going straight to double-bill suburban theatres and drive-ins in most markets. Even Elvis fans seemed nonplussed and Change of Habit would be Presley’s last ever big screen appearance.
It didn’t do much for Mary Tyler Moore’s film career either. While Variety commended her “spritely performance” (”Change”, 8), most critics thought she was bland and "badly miscast” (Medved, 90). She even become a recipient of the parodic Golden Turkey Award for Worst Performance by an Actor/Actress as a Clergyman or Nun (Medved, 91). The failure of Change of Habit meant the star had suffered three consecutive flops and Universal execs were understandably nervous. Not that Moore could be held fully or even primarily responsible for the poor reception of what were essentially mismanaged potboilers. As she later recalled, "The studio’s approach seemed more like ‘Let’s see what happens
when we toss all these elements into a paper bag and shake it up. Maybe,
when we spill it out, it’s a movie’” (Moore, 126).
Nevertheless, with three strikes in a row, Moore’s future in films looked doubtful. There was a growing fear in the front office that she simply “didn’t click on the big screen as she had on TV” and even the star herself had doubts. “I’m simply not geared for moviemaking,” she lamented, “But I had to make movies before I learned what it was about making them I didn’t like” (Oppenheimer 1971, 7). Once Change of Habit was in the can, Universal agreed, through mutual consent, to dissolve her contract.
It was at about this time, though, that Moore was thrown a redemptive lifeline by former TV co-star Dick Van Dyke. He invited her to reunite in a one-off variety special for CBS titled Dick Van Dyke and the Other Woman. The programme proved a delighful romp that showcased Moore’s musical and comedic talents to fine effect, reminding audiences of how genuinely charismatic she could be with the right material and the right co-star. As Jennifer Armstrong (2013) writes: “It was a special that challenged every TV reviewer not to use the word charming. Moore looked fresh, funny, talented, and totally in her element” (21). The show proved such a critical and ratings bonanza that CBS offered Moore the chance to develop her own TV sitcom. And that led to a little something called The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-77) and, well, we all know how that played out.
In a 1971 interview conducted as her new hit TV series was taking the country – indeed, the world – by storm, Moore reflected on the dizzying turnaround in her professional fortunes:
“It is as if I’ve come back to life. I feel I am fulfilling a function: I am making people laugh. And I am proud of what I am doing. I spent too many years being unhappy. No More!” (Oppenheimer 1971, 7)
And that, as they say, is show biz, folks!
Allen, Stephen R. “’Holly Golightly’ Looks Like a Winner.” The Courier-Post. 11 October 1966: 37.
Armstrong, Jennifer Keishin. Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: And All the Brilliant Minds Who Made ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’ a Classic. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2013.
Bonderoff, Jason. Mary Tyler Moore. New York: St Martin’s Press, 1986.
Bradford, Jack. “Hollywood.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.18 January 1969: 24.
Champlin, Charles. “More of Moore on Film Horizon.” The Los Angeles Times. 15 August 1966: IV-20.
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“Film Planned on Nun’s Life.” The Post-Standard. 15 July 1967: 12.
Freeman, Alex. “TV Closeup.” The Daily Reporter. 21 July 1966: 7.
“‘Habit’ Is Next Film for Elvis Presley”. The Los Angeles Times. 3 February 1969: IV-19
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“Mary Tyler Moore Got Bad Reviews.” The Decatur Daily Review. 5 December 1966: 10.
Medved, Michael, and Harry Medved. The Golden Turkey Awards. New York: Putnam, 1980.
“Merrick Chokes, Folds ‘Breakfast’.” The Pittsburgh Press. 15 December 1966: 1.
“Miss Moore in ‘Habit’ Role.” The Los Angeles Times. 30 October 1968: IV-11.
Moore, Mary Tyler. After All. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1995.
Neibaur, James L. The Elvis Movies. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2014.
Oppenheimer, Peer J. “Mary Tyler Moore: The Next Doris Day.” Family Weekly, The Newspaper Magazine. 12 February 1967: 4.
____________. “Mary Tyler Moore: From Mini-Slump to Big Comeback.” Family Weekly, The Newspaper Magazine. 18 April, 1971: 7.
Parmentier, Ernest, ed. Filmfacts, 1968. New York: Filmfacts Magazine.
“Rhoda and Mary: Love Laughs.” Time. Vol. 104. no. 18. October 28, 1974: 58-68.
Schatz, Thomas. “The New Hollywood.” Movie Blockbusters. Ed. Julian Stringer. London and New York: Routledge, 2003: 15-42.
Scott, Vernon. “Mary Tyler Moore Making Movie.” Daily World. 12 June 1966: 10.
____________. “Mary Tyler Moore Back After Broadway Fiasco.” The Leader Times. 18 April 1967: 15.
Steyn, Mark. Broadway Babies Say Goodnight: Musicals Then and Now. London and New York: Routledge, 1999.
Thomas, Bob. “Mary Tyler Moore, on Achieving Her Lifetime Ambition – Broadway.” The Detroit Free Press. 31 August 1966: 6-C.
Thomas, Kevin. “Elvis Presley Stars in ‘Change of Habit’”. The Los Angeles Times. 20 November 1969: IV-21.