TV Sirens: A Tantalizing Look at Prime

Time’s Fabulous Females


Louise Lasser (p. 61)


Michael McWilliams

Perigee Books


“Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” wasn’t just a soap opera for people who didn’t like soap operas, it was a TV series for people who didn’t care for TV. Its star, Louise Lasser, was a perfect figurehead for the show’s esthetic: deadpan smugness. Rubbing her teeth with her fingers and searching for waxy yellow buildup, Lasser reveled in a sort of detached narcissism. She wasn’t playing herself or her character – she was drawing attention to her riffs as a spacey caricature. Even as a guest star on “Taxi,” playing Judd Hirsch’s ex-wife, Lasser did a parody of the kind of helpmate that always refers to Lasser (“MH, MH,” too, reflected itself: a TV serial whose heroine believes TV commercials). Like her ex-husband, Woody Allen, Lasser sees the wealth of human emotion outside herself as something less important than her view of class and culture. There’s “us” – the educated, the hip, the well-off – and “them – the tacky, the vulgar, the stupid (i.e., the population of Fernwood). “Mary Hartman” was nothing less than TV’s first yuppie hit – a campy celebration of cultural superiority. It filtered the cynical absurdism of Ernie Kovacs through the domestic realism of Norman Lear and came up with an extended pilot for “Late Night With David Letterman” (Letterman expunged women from the tradition and added a frat-house nastiness). The show wasn’t exactly satire because its human targets were less puffed up with themselves than dragged down by their environment. Lasser never dramatized the self-absorption of her character, as Cybill Shepherd does in “Moonlighting,” or let us in on the joke of her genre, as Joan Collins does in “Dynasty.” She was like Shirley Booth on Quaaludes, which is about as apt a description of Mary Hartman as I can think of.



Mary Kay Place (p. 62)


There’s a wonderful, wry warmth to Mary Kay Place. In The Big Chill she was the only character who wasn’t twisted, stupid, sullen, vain, smug, obnoxious, or suicidal. All she wanted was a baby, so she merrily hopped into bed with her best friend’s husband. Place doesn’t make go-getting seem pushy – she’s too nice. At the same time she subverts the decency of her characters with an open-eyed lustiness. Her Loretta Haggers in “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” is a campy cartoon – an “SCTV” send-up of a country-and-western diva – but Place gives Loretta unexpected shadings. She’s almost less a Lear Lady than a Henning Honey, combining the loony logic of Gracie Allen, the corn-pone confidence of Irene Ryan, and the self-effacing sexuality of Donna Douglas. But if Place is less dynamic than any of these divas, it’s because she had so few costars on “MH, MH” to charge up her feelings. I always looked forward to Loretta dropping by Mary’s kitchen, if only to block Louise Lasser’s stares into space. Place liked Loretta. She admired her ambition, delighted in her defiance, even envied her sensibility. Maybe the density of Place’s portrayal stems from her writing background: she won an Emmy nomination for a “M*A*S*H” episode and worked on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” But the struggle of her acting will be to reconcile the sharp (“MTM”) and mushy (“M*A*S*H”) sides of her personality. In 1986's The Girl Who Spelled Freedom, Place tearfully applauded a Cambodian refugee’s spelling-bee victory. Maybe a Lear Lady lurks in her after all. But Place’s aces in the hole are witty asides in lovefests (Big Chill) and lyrical touches in lampoons (“Mary Hartman”). She ought to have a long talk with Loretta over a cup of coffee.

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