I'd already been thinking a lot about Valerie Harper, when she announced her illness a few days ago. It started about a month ago, during a bad weekend. I had writer's block and it was making me depressed, plus J. was away for the weekend. This combination can get Repulsion-esque. Desperately surfing Netflix for a cure for my ailments, I found a late '80s TV movie with Valerie Harper that I'd somehow never seen or heard of:
The movie was charming. A feminist business executive decides to become a stay at home mom and faces the expected fish out of water calamities: iron burns on her husband's dress shirts, messy kitchens, spiritual dissatisfaction. Eventually she gets a part time job and finds balance. I could get behind its philosophy, and I appreciated its level of consciousness: at the end Harper's character expresses gratitude that she has the financial means to be a part time stay at home mom (I just had a feeling that Harper, an active and proud feminist, stuck that line in). It made me feel immensely better because that's what Valerie Harper does. Valerie Harper has always made me feel better--or safe, or warm, or happy, or comforted. For my entire life she has signified goodness and light. A few weeks later her new memoir I, Rhoda came out and I started devouring it. I've been interested to reflect on the ways in which many of the major events in her career have somehow correlated with major events in my life.
Although my first exposure to Harper was on Valerie, the 1980s sitcom from which she was unceremoniously fired, like most of the world I fell in love with her watching The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I'll make the admission that I discovered the series on Nick at Nite throughout the 1990s, which often makes people who grew up in the '70s semi-pejoratively say "Oh, you're so young." I never know how to respond. Anyway, I tuned in because my mother told me that Julie Kavner--star of my much beloved film This is My Life--sometimes guest starred on it. Every night I watched it on the appropriately 1970s television set that I pilfered when my parents got a new one for the family room.
My love of The Mary Tyler Moore Show formed in the miserable middle school dark ages that I've written about elsewhere on this blog. If horror movies and erotic thrillers provided me with a way to understand my feelings and experiences, '70s and '80s sitcoms were corrective. When your life is dominated by anxiety, depression, and unstable life occurrences, as mine was at the time, the therapeutic qualities of a good sitcom's comfortable, reliable repetition cannot be underestimated. I've always said that a sitcom is like the happy opposite of a trauma cycle: In sitcom world, the characters keep experiencing the same things over and over again (narratively and/or formally) for reasons that aren't entirely clear, but unlike in the recurring events of a trauma cycle, everything always ends well.
Other than the video store, there were no places that I liked being more than Mary Richards' and Rhoda Morgenstern's studio apartments, when they were hanging out. To this day, recurring sets on TV shows from the 1960s through the 1980s provide as much sanctuary for me as my own beloved apartment.
As I'm sure is true for many people, a lot of my intense emotional connection to the sitcom is because of Valerie Harper. Aside from the obvious fact that I could deeply relate to insecure, neurotic, self-deprecating Rhoda (I loved that she was constantly down on herself, when she was undeniably beautiful and fabulous), Harper's profound warmth just reaches out and connects with you. It always does.
I knew of Rhoda, but in those days it was impossible to see it. Before YouTube, before DVD, I was at the whims of syndication affiliates--and they were rarely helpful. Around sixth grade, my dad decided to take me to New York City for the weekend for the first time. I was fascinated by New York, partly because I knew that he loved it so much and partly because of movies, TV shows, A Chorus Line, Madonna and Cyndi Lauper. When he asked what sites I wanted to see, I told him that I wanted to go to The Museum of Television and Radio Broadcasting (now The Paley Center) to watch episodes of Rhoda.
Actually, the episode "Rhoda's Wedding" was the perfect sight to see in New York. I loved seeing Valerie Harper pass Gray's Papaya on 72nd Street and Broadway in her wedding dress in 1974, since I had just walked past that same Gray's Papaya. These are still some of the sites of New York City that mean the most to me: The places where Rhoda walked. "Rhoda's Wedding," which I found hilarious and brilliant, has particular meaning for me since I experienced it on that special weekend, during which I bonded with both New York and my father, and ate a lot of pastries (I've been unsurprised reading Harper's book that we share the same, um, relationship with food).
Watching the narration of this theme now, Rhoda could be describing me. It makes sense that once upon a time in the LiveJournal days, when I posted one of those narcissistic surveys asking my friends to post a picture defining me as a person, the first picture posted was Rhoda.
I encountered Valerie Harper again at another fundamental New York moment. I took the train from Westchester to see her in The Tale of the Allergist's Wife two weekends after I got to college, and the first weekend after September 11. I felt guilty going to see a play while my classmates were going to help out at Ground Zero--but I'm an imperfect person (to say the least) and, as usual at difficult junctures of my life, I needed her. Right after September 11 was, needless to say, a truly incongruous time to be leaving home and arriving in New York (well, 20 minutes away from New York), finding independence, coming out completely for the first time, and having a bunch of dreams come true. I didn't know what to do with the combination of elation and intense distress, I still don't. But, for better or worse, it did seem fitting that my first step towards an independent life in New York was seeing Valerie Harper live. She was without flaw as a neurotic Upper West Side housewife recovering from a nervous breakdown and dealing with the unexpected arrival of her former close friend/competitor, Michele Lee! It was catnip for me.
After middle school, the most difficult and lonely time in my life was when I arrived in Los Angeles to go to graduate school, leaving New York, my family, all of my friends, and a boyfriend behind. Los Angeles was tough, graduate school was really tough, and I practically learned to drive on the city's streets. Sometimes, after one terrifying incident or another, I'd pull off the road into a parking lot to call my mom and tell her that I was going back home, to Albany. During that period, I again found solace with Valerie. I re-watched every episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and then started on Rhoda (finally on DVD). Around this time, when my beloved Nana was in the final stages of illness, I flew back to Albany and my sister and I comforted ourselves by watching Rhoda episodes in her childhood bedroom.
At this time, I really began to understand and be able to articulate the fact that sometimes one can really develop emotional attachments to characters, actors, and sets that are barely distinguishable in their emotional importance from those one has in real life (if one is lucky). My relationship with Valerie Harper is different from my relationship with my oldest childhood friend, as each relationship is different from any other. However, for me, it's not exactly lesser. It fulfills different needs.
I've had this on my mind a lot lately. Whenever an actor I love becomes ill, or deals with something difficult, I am faced with the weirdness of my relationship with them. As I do with any friend dealing with hard times, I experience a longing--a longing to be there for them, to do something for them comparable to all that they have done for me, to hold their hand. Yet this, of course, is impossible. Because of the nature of the relationship, these people just don't need me as much as I have needed them. Frankly, they don't really need me at all--and I'm glad for that, because it means that (like me, thankfully) they have others.
I recently wrote Harper a "fan letter" on facebook, telling her some of this (perhaps surprisingly, I haven't sent a fan letter to anybody before, except for Steven Spielberg when I was 6 to thank him for Poltergeist). I also told her how grateful I am for all that she's done for the gays, from her genius delivery of the punchline at the end of the Mary Tyler Moore episode "My Brother's Keeper" (when Rhoda tells Phyllis that she doesn't want to marry her brother, because he's gay, and Phyllis cries "Oh Rhoda, I'm so relieved!"), to her extraordinarily thoughtful answers when she was interviewed by Vito Russo in The Advocate in 1978. I thanked her for aggressively standing for what was right in an era when many celebrities were dismissive about Vito Russo's political concerns, and complacent in creating offensive representations.
|Thanks to the Vito documentary facebook page for posting this.|
My fan letter didn't seem to complete a fair exchange, given all that she's given to me. And yet at the same time I assume that performers like Valerie Harper want to effect people profoundly and make differences in people's lives because of their work. I like to think that, even though she doesn't know me, I have, in a very small way, been one of the millions to fulfill that one need: I have been a witness to and beneficiary of her greatness as an artist and a person, and my ability to talk and write about it makes that greatness even richer and more tangible (or tangible in a different way). For Valerie (and, admittedly, for myself) it's the least and most that I can do.