Louise Lasser has become America’s most discussed housewife—without the whitest wash in town
By Lorraine Davis
Louise Lasser, Louise Lasser has reason to smile all over these pages. Not only has she started a new kind of double-talk in an outburst of news stories about “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman”; but, all over America, five nights or days a week, a surging cult is tuning in that half-hour TV pseudo soap opera, aired by the skill of producer Norman Lear (“All in the Family,” et al.) and the perspicacity of those television stations that booked this sleeper of a show, rejected by the networks.
In her stylized braids and gingham minidress, Louise Lasser looks more like a cartoon character than a tragi-comedy heroine. She plays the American housewife/mother as Raggedy Ann (Johnny Gruelle’s child-charmer of the ‘twenties) with behavior as daffy as, but a good deal more ominous than, that of Chic Young’s “Blondie.” Just who is this Mary Hartman and why does she act that way?
“Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” is the hit start of an idea-rich new TV genre, its riveting inner tension coming from a complex heroine in the person of Louise Lasser—the thorough, brainy, compulsive actress who wanders on screen—husky-voiced and shrewdly muddle-headed—to play, off-center, a small-town American wife.
Louise Lasser’s Mary Hartman is a copeless working-class mother who takes floor-wax commercials at face, or foot, value. Her mood shifts are the fastest and her double-takes the longest in videotube history. “She’s listening to those off-screen voices in her head,” said one fan.
Louise Lasser has a lot in her head. “She knows more about filming than the camera man, more about lighting than the lighting engineer,” said the show’s press rep. “When she learns my job, I can resign.”
The sights and sounds of the Mary Hartman show are hilariously accurate. Mid-American folkways have not been so well spoofed on the air since “Vic and Sade” left the radio waves in the early ‘forties. The time-payment furnishings of the Hartman house would make any Sears, Roebuck manager beam; and what happens in those surroundings is definitely 1970’s.
Sade may have talked about Vic to the “girls” at the Thimble Club, but she didn’t sign up for a mind-bending group therapy like the one (with initials razzing a popular “training”) that freaked Mary Hartman out; if her husband was impotent, she never told us; and she certainly didn’t call in a blond clench-jawed sex therapist (closely resembling a famed television psychologist) to try for a cure. No TV body but Mary Hartman has a grandfather who was arrested as an exhibitionist, either.
Viewers in some cities think the Hartman satires too salacious for tender young eyes, insist on late-night scheduling. But Harvard boys can still rush home from classes to watch Mary at 1:00 in the afternoon.
Louise Lasser, in a very real sense, is Mary Hartman. Louise believes in Mary Hartman, she takes her seriously, she plays her soberly. Asked if she thought the character had changed during the opening months of the show, Louise answered, “I am always changing. As I change, I make my needs known; but it takes the writers a while to put those changes into the show—so time goes by before Mary Hartman changes.”
Why does Louise Lasser play Mary Hartman as a child-wife with subnormal intelligence and genius intuition? First, there is an essential childishness in her own demeanor. Impatience: “Nothing goes fast enough or slow enough for me.” Violence, when a costume’s zipper jams: “I ripped an entire dress to shreds; did you hear me cursing?”
The Lasser stance is the teenage forward-tilt of someone half her age; her clothes, skin-tight ‘sixties-style jeans and a shrunken sweat shirt that leaves her navel bare. “All my clothes have name tapes in them.” Are they left over from her own days at summer camp? “No, they’re handed down from children of my friends.”
Second, this childish quality of Louise Lasser’s goes into Mary Hartman by design not subconscious transference. Louise said, “When people in their work and their art touch the children in us, they are using the one thing we all have in common: we were all once short.”
Louise sees Mary Hartman as the personification of the post-Liberation problems of American women. “We’ve passed Women’s Liberation now,” she said. “We know women can and should have jobs; but it’s time to see what women can’t do and why. This means getting back to emotional values, showing women that their real limitations are emotional.
“Even if we change the way women and men are brought up, we will still have human problems. There are few clear-cut issues. “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” goes into the grey areas. In playing Mary, I am playing the underside of the person that I am in my own life; and emotions are the only things that count with me. The best gesture of my brain is less than your eyelid’s flutter.
“It’s time now,” Louise Lasser continued, “to discuss the similarities between men and women. There’s a part of all of us that’s needy, that doesn’t change just because we achieve some recognition. We may just be getting into some bad habits, beginning to think we don’t need anything but recognition. We live in Feelingland. I don’t believe in anything that assaults the emotions.”
Whether the viewers are chortling over the latest in-joke in the “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” script—with its send-ups of other television people, shows, and commercials—or whether they’re just staring at the set, transfixed by the lifyness of it all (after all, lots of Archie Bunker’s fans aren’t really laughing at his bigotry, they’re cheering), most of those who stay with Mary Hartman for more than a night or two become hooked.
Lest we lose the thread of any of the several entwined plots and stop watching for good, at least one newspaper (the New York Post) and one disk jockey provide daily a synopsis of the previous “MH, MH” with a parody newscast in the same whacked-out vein. No other soap opera can boast of such status stampers.
Daytime soap operas are improbably fantasies; “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” is too-probable reality. “The show is successful because it’s different,” said Louise Lasser. “It’s stylized—so it’s more real than realism, more like life. We want to make you laugh and cry, to reach the part of your emotions that other shows haven’t touched. People like Mary because she’s not too aggressive and upsetting. She’s passive and vulnerable. You deny your humanity if you put your vulnerability in a closet.”
Louise Lasser wears her vulnerability on her sweat-shirt sleeve. Without her chestnut braids and makeup, she’s an average-sized early-morning blonde, wan-skinned and pale-lashed; her voice rasps, eyes dart. A fluffy scraggle of a dog, called Kefir, is her wriggling security blanket.
Louise seems to find it hard to relax or to stop acting, even off the set, and takes her hangups home to a conventional and comfortable bungalow atop a Beverly Hill, filled with upper-middle-class artifacts that correspond rather alarmingly to the Kitsch of the Hartman household—but richer, and a shade more with it.
There’s nothing in Louise Lasser’s refrigerator but leftover wine and supermarket cheeses. “Not bought by me,” she said. Unlike Mary Hartman—surrounded by her husband, child, mother, father, sister, and grandfather and continually cooking up unsatisfactory meals of plastic-packed convenience foods—Louise, unmarried, lives alone and seldom cooks at all.
Under a nervous strain, Louise Lasser speaks in perceptive, abrupt, flat, factual phrases; when she finally unwinds, the sidewise humor expectable from someone who was once Woody Allen’s wife emerges. “I could save anyone’s life…for the evening…or as long as my attention lasts.” Repairman, referring to a female aide: “Is she your secretary?” “No, that’s my father.”
Nothing seems easy for Louise Lasser; no matter how she simplifies her life, living comes hard. “I never give parties; I have too many problems.” The child of a famed income-tax expert, she grew up on a privileged New York street, was extensively educated before she began to study acting; married; acted in a revue, two Broadway comedies, three movies with Allen; made TV commercials. “It’s just very tough to be a human being,” she said.
One of the toughest things now for Louise Lasser is her rapid rise to fame as Mary H.: “It’s a very exciting time in my life; I just wish I were the kind of person who could enjoy it more.”