Louise Lasser? Mary Hartman? Which One Is Real?
By Isobel Silden
The huge hazel-green eyes seem to look right through you. The incredible pigtails on a grown lady don’t seem out-of-place, nor does the blouse with its puffed “optimistic shoulders.” The lady is innovative and “slightly bent” as her TV series is described.
Meet Louise Lasser, Louise Lasser, who as Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, has become a household name, a cult figure and the most exciting thing on television.
Of course, television viewers knew Louise years ago, by face and cliché, if not by name. She was the loving Nyquil-administering wife to her cold-suffering husband who murmured, “You’re a good wife,” and she replied, “I know, I know.” That Louise Lasser!
Then there was the Louise Lasser who was married briefly to comic Woody Allen and appeared in three of his films after they broke up: Take the Money and Run in 1969, Bananas in 1971, and Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex in 1972. There were Broadway plays, other films including Such Good Friends and Slither but the general public knew little about Louise until January, 1976, when “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” revealed her to an unsuspecting nation.
The program is the creation of Norman Lear who brought us Archie Bunker and “All in the Family” in the sixties [sic].
He is also responsible for “Sanford and Son,” “Maude,” “All’s Fair,” “The Nancy Walker Show,” “One Day at a Time,” “The Jeffersons,” and “Good Times.” They’re all funny, successful, but none as wacked out as Mary. In Lear’s presentation-press book, he described it best and most succinctly: “We are simply taking a look at our life and times through another kind of prism. Of course the prism may appear to have been fashioned by a drunken lens maker in a darkly wooded German forest.”
Got that clear, now? Or relive one of Mary’s soliloquies from an early show: “It’s just incredible…Grandpa Larkin…the Fernwood Flasher…mass murders…goats…chickens…and my floor is yellow. I’m too keyed up to sleep.”
The dots between phrases are the way Mary-Louise both speak. There is, in fact, little distinction between the two women, with the glaring exception that Louise is far, far brighter, and comes from an infinitely more sophisticated background. Her father is noted tax expert J.K. Lasser. Mary Hartman’s father works in the auto assembly plant along with everyone else in the mythical, but could-be-real town of Fernwood, Ohio.
On the remote assumption that readers of this story have not yet seen Mary Hartman, let us tell you briefly that in its first season from January to June, it covered such shockers as impotence, masturbation, menstruation, love, exhibitionism, and extramarital love affairs—among other topics. Nothing was sacred. All the taboos were smashed, and there were those who loved it; others hated it.
A TV station in Seattle was bombarded with mail and calls from irate viewers who didn’t want it seen at 5 p.m. when the kids were home from school. In Des Moines, the station scheduled it at 2:30, rather than 3:30 for the same reason. Mary Hartman couldn’t replace the Mickey Mouse Club there, no sirree! The station in Richmond, VA, cancelled the program after it aired six episodes. Little Rock Arkansans bombarded their station with 1,200 names on petitions and 1,000 phone calls.
The Rev. T. Webster, Jr., of the Second Presbyterian Church in Chicago compared Mary Hartman to a “grownup Charlie Brown, who faces life’s problems with a basic goodness and childlike simplicity. Mary Hartman doesn’t look for happiness by rearranging life’s problems. She pierces through the fog of troubles and lines up with the winning things in life. She believes in the ultimate triumph of good over evil, a basic Christian doctrine.”
However, the Kansas City Baptist Church denounced the series as salacious, not for children or believers, because one show dealt with a frank discussion of menstruation. Not your typical soap opera.
Bill Bell, head writer and creator of “The Young and the Restless,” and head writer of “Days of Our Lives” has pronounced Mary Hartman a fad: “I’ve seen it three times; it’s an embarrassment.” The associate producer of another “straight” daytime serial pronounces it “ugly, the show where they talked about masturbation. No reason for it.”
Still, in Evanston, IL, home of the WCTU, a Presbyterian minister was quoted as citing Mary as “a theological model of the Judeo-Christian system, doing good, beginning to hope for, and work for, solutions.”
It is not exactly a series one can ignore. Obviously.
The eminently-prestigious Sexual Medicine Today (published for MD’s) devoted a lengthy editorial to the program stating, “It is the greatest development in sex education adult America has ever experienced. It is a spacey American Scenes from a Marriage.
It is also responsible for most New York streets being empty at 11 p.m. when people are home watching it.
So what’s a Louise Lasser? How does one separate her from her character? One really doesn’t, because in Louise’s own words:
“Mary laughs my laughs and cries my tears, but I express hostility more openly than she does. I happen to love Mary, but I feel her pain too. Her character has changed, because I am always changing, and as I change, I make my needs known. The writers then put those changes into the show. I see Mary Hartman like a very tall man whose pants are too short. The show is strangely and uncomfortably next to life. I don’t mean to say it is real life, but the comedy is rooted in something real, which makes it richer. Comedy for me is something very fragile. My instincts are always right—not about acting—but about comedy.
“Mary isn’t just passive. She’s a good example of a woman trying to cope, trying to get through the day. She is really my underlife, my flip side.”
These are indeed philosophies that the TV Mary Hartman might only sense, but would be unable to verbalize. Louise speaks easily in this vernacular, due undoubtedly to her upper-middle-class background and education. She studied political theory at Brandeis University, following private school education in her native New York, and also attended the New School.
Still, one looks at the slight, slim lady in her blue jeans, child-size shrunken red sweatshirt, so small that her navel is on display, and marvels at her conversation. One gets only the tip of the iceberg in a Louise Lasser meeting. There is more, much more. She will give as much as she can.
“Mary is still a little girl trying to grow up. There is a woman in there trying to get out. The braids, the tight puffy-sleeved little girl dresses are holding her in. Mary is trying to live properly by rules laid out by ladies’ magazines, Dr. Joyce Brothers, and TV commercials.”
Ah yes, Louise knows her well. There was a time when she never believed that would happen.
Norman Lear had always wanted her to star in the show. She had turned it down, countless times, saying: “A soap opera? There’s the humiliation factor. I won’t do a lot of TV. I didn’t respond to this at first, I saw it as limiting, without giving me leeway as an actress. I only saw the craziness, not the heart and soul of it.
“But I found that this production is unique. They have a point of view, a dedication, and operating intelligence rather than ‘Let’s just get them laughing.’ The writers and actors have a perspective. Call it Norman Lear’s version of Our Town. It deals with life, but it definitely has a rake on it. The perspective is tilted. But, if I ask them to fix the lighting they will—not because I have clout, but because they care.”
This is from the lady about whom one critic has written: “She goes open-mouthed, handling the hurricanes of life. She reflects the feminine consciousness in a way Barbara Walters never could. She is the news, the networks. She is allowed no resolution, no liberation. She is a survivor in a world not worth surviving in.”
Louise doesn’t necessarily subscribe to that, although she has admitted to doubts about the part:
“It’s like driving on a road when there are tremendous dangers. It’s dark and it’s foggy and no one’s ever been there before. The acceptance of the show proves to me that I do fit in society. If any American family would take Mary Hartman into their home, they’d take Louise.”
She is very serious about her insecurity. She has been in psychoanalysis for 15 years, and she still thinks of herself as an orphan. She has worn her hair in braids for years, which a psychiatrist would find very telling.
Writer Ann Marcus says, “She’s so vulnerable, and she has made Mary so vulnerable, you just want to put your arms around her. I find myself saying ‘Louise, you’re so thin, eat.’”
She says it, but Louise doesn’t. Her refrigerator in her rented Beverly Hills home has primarily leftover wine and cheese in it. Louise rarely cooks. She says vaguely on occasion, she’s uncertain where the kitchen is. She did let her father convince her to hire a man to come in and prepare meals for her. A crew cleans house. She lives alone except for three-pound pedigree-uncertain Kefir, her doggy security blanket who goes to the studio with her and is her close and constant companion. There is no time for human companionship.
There is definitely something waif-like about her. She confided to a top fashion magazine writer (Vogue) that all her clothes had nametapes in them, and not left over from her little girl camping days, either.
“They’re handed down to me from my friends’ children,” she explains.
It is not an idiosyncrasy. It could almost be a necessity, in that her work schedule leaves her no time to shop. The first year, Louise worked 12 to 15 hours every day, and studied scripts on weekends. The second season, the schedule was rearranged so that she works only Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, while the others in the cast do their parts around her. It had to be this way, because everyone agrees the show was chaos last year. She rose above the frantic hours and some of the critics’ barbs—one accused her of having a Barbie-doll face. Others saw her “in a permanent coma,” or “moving like a tranquilized carp.”
Not so: the lady will spend five minutes rehearsing a pause in a sentence to make sure it plays exactly right, for the best comedic effect. She has been compared to Elaine May in her search for the perfect. And she achieves it.
Prior to Mary Hartman, Louise found television generally inimpressive. “I had a feeling everyone started out to do something else. It’s such an important area, but when you get around people who have to grind it out daily, it’s very easy to give up the fight and compromise. That affects the quality. Commercials are a good acting experience. When you spend a whole day on a 30-second spot, you learn a lot about cameras and timing.”
Since she credits the Nyquil commercials for helping launch her, she speaks from knowledge and wisdom.
It is therefore mystifying when she says, “I never wanted to be in comedy. I found it humiliating. I describe my own humor as rhythmical—the rhythm of the way the thing sounds, like where my voice is placed at any given moment. The spaces between words and phrases. And what creates rhythm first is the attitude.”
She credits former husband Woody Allen with much of her acting thrust. “I love him. I’m proud to have been married to him. He was a tremendous influence in my life, the major relationship we all have once; at least the girls in our society of 10 years ago did. I’m flattered when I read his saying that I was an influence on him. It’s very tender.”
Woody recently proclaimed that Louise is “brighter than I am, funnier than I am, and the only person who can cheer me up.”
It seems so typical that when they met, Louise was in therapy and thinking about going to work in the theatre. She haunted museums wearing a trench coat, wandering—as she puts it—“through a totally isolated year. Then I met Woody and he and I were isolated together. We went to museums, and I bought HIM a trench coat.”
They married in 1966, broke up in 1969, and then her career commenced. Prior to Mary Hartman, she said she was proud of only two performances, Bananas and Ingmar Bergman’s The Lie. She can now take pride in the fact that Mary Hartman has been compared by some critics to the best of Chekhov, Cervantes, James Joyce, John Updike, and Bergman. Heavy company indeed. It has also been called a video Rorschach test for the mass audience. All that and it’s funny too.
Of course there are Mary Hartman fan clubs and T-shirts and there are now Mary Hartman trivia jokes—bad example: How does Mary Hartman take her coffee? Black with cream.
Understandable, because in the context of the shows, Mary will put off decision until she has another cup of coffee, dusts a cupboard or adds salt to the soup. Her non-sequiturs are classics. Glorious example: she answers the ringing telephone and says “I can’t talk to you now, I’m on the telephone.”
Louise is not that far removed from Mary. A typical real-life telephone call, to the Beverly Hills information operator:
“Hello, operator, give me the number of Jacopo’s Pizza Parlor…and my house is on fire.”
It was. But not disastrously.
Or, Louise again speaking of herself: “I could save anyone’s life, for the evening Or as long as my attention lasts.”
One believes her.
Again: “I never give parties. I have too many problems. Living comes hard.”
She is totally truthful.
And so, it is impossible to separate Mary Hartman from Louise Lasser, even though Louise tries to explain her, when she says:
“The show is successful because it’s different. It’s stylized, so it’s more real than realism, more like life. We want to make you laugh and cry, to reach the parts 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.”
Maybe the series IS too-probably reality, as some have said. It definitely does operate on two levels—satire and comedy at one, and dramatic soap opera that gets very sad at another. It is best summarized in one Mary Hartman speech when life appeared totally insoluble and she spoke up bravely:
“Everything is going to be all right. And afterward, we’re all going to go to the House of Pancakes.”
The American dream: everything always has a happy ending, and if it has something to do with food, isn’t that simply how we were brought up?
Louise will elaborate a bit more about her views of comedy: “It just ripples through your whole body. The old TV comedy is full-body. We have closeups because TV sets are small. I see myself as an actress who can make YOU both laugh and cry. I don’t look down on comedy now, but it can’t JUST make you laugh. Mary Hartman is closer to the way life really is. At tragic moments, you laugh.”
At tragic moments in some of the scripts, Mary Hartman has reacted hysterically: while worrying about her kidnapped daughter, Heather, she pondered the relative merits of freeze-dried versus fresh-perked coffee. When she was held hostage by the mass murderer in the Chinese laundry, she told him his incessant headaches might be cause by low blood sugar, and urged he see a doctor.
Louise continues: “The shy, not aggressive surface of Mary Hartman is a very private intimate side of me, and her decision that she’s gonna take care of everything in her way. There is a tremendous anxiety running through her. The difference is that I have a real awareness of mine, and she is unconscious of hers. It’s true of anyone playing any part. You can’t exceed yourself. You can’t go beyond your own skin.
“It’s very tough to be a human being. This is a very exciting time in my own life. I just wish I were the kind of person who could enjoy it more.”
Mary Hartman couldn’t have said it better.