By Elias Savada.
OK, kids, who among you doesn’t know who Norman Lear is?
The few of you who raised your hands, shame on you. (I tested this question on a friend half my age, and he thought I was talking about the guy who dropped a lot of LSD. Oops. That would be Timothy Leary.) So, instead of looking for all those Pokémon Go critters on your cellphone, binge watch some of the best tv series created by the man who is the godfather of American television comedy and the genius who brought America the likes of All in the Family, Sanford and Son, Maude, Good Times, and The Jeffersons. Or maybe catch this new documentary in your local art house theatre (or wait for its premiere on PBS’s American Masters series this Fall).
Once upon a time there were three basic television networks and Norman Lear had his hand in a majority of the top ten programs each week, making CBS very happy. His shows drew audiences that totaled over 120 million viewers, a massive number approached in today’s fragmented market only by the audience for the Super Bowl. His series are grand hallmarks of the pre-internet, pre-cable tv, pre-DVR, and pre-VHS days of what we used to call the idiot box. Before most of you were born. For me, those topical episodes, especially 1972’s Maude’s Dilemma (taking on the hot-button issue of abortion), were the water cooler discussions that my friends and I savored. How much they would push the social envelope.
And while most of Lear’s contemporaries have passed away, Norman, now a spritely 93 years young and as charming as ever, lives on in the affable Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You from filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, the pair who joined together ten years ago to create the shockumentaries The Boys of Barak (2005) and Jesus Camp (2006), about unsettling aspects with our social-educational processes. It’s been four years since their last feature (Detropia, about the woes of Detroit), and this is their first observational piece about a very public and influential figure. You (should) already know about the central character here, so the audience is looking for the story behind the man, for something beyond his autobiography, Even This I Get to Experience, a New York Times bestseller published a few years ago. The documentary touches on why Norman’s shows blasted away at America’s plain vanilla, Mary Tyler Moore, lives, in the 1970s. and throws in a few other tidbits to round out the tale.
Still, the film is a traditional celebration of a myth, filled with clips and more than occasional homage-stuffed moments from folks like George Clooney, Amy Poehler, and Norman’s close friend – Carl’s kid – Rob Reiner (also one of the stars of All in the Family). But mostly we get a lot of Norman, and that’s fine and dandy. We actually get two of him. His current nonagenarian incarnation, with flashbacks to his hectic days (backstage clips courtesy of a 1970s story done by 60 Minutes), is occasionally visited by Lear’s 9-year-old self (Keaton Nigel Cooke), bedecked with Lear’s trademarked white fabric sport hat. The muse-of-a-muse doppelganger device seems out of place in the film’s general talking-head approach, especially when the directors’ parade about the youngster version at points when his appearance seems to change the feature’s pacing.
As a portrait of a genius, Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You is a pleasant enough historical primer on what was the best part of television in the 1970s. You’ll get to know his strained childhood when his father was the Archie Bunker in the Lear household in Connecticut. The All in the Family moments that arrive near the film’s end are definitely the most poignant, bringing tears to a very real guy who lives for his tv family. Speaking of Lear’s own dynasty, there are uncomfortable (for Norman), sad (for us) moments as he speaks of Frances, his second wife (spanning a marriage of 28 years; they divorced in 1985), a devout feminist who helped inspire the lively, opinionated Maude character portrayed by Bea Arthur. There are happier moments when we catch glimpses of his new family with Norman’s current wife, Lyn, his junior by 25 years, and the three children, including twins born to a then 71-year-old father.
There’s some talk of Lear’s exit from show business to found the progressive advocacy group People for the American Way in 1981. There’s literally no hint of his few theatrical outings, which pale to his later television work, although Divorce American Style (1967) did earn him an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay. Sitcoms and sitdrams were his world, and this documentary is a pleasing scratching-the-surface slant about a man who blended politics and culture with just the right amount of comedy to awaken a sleeping television generation to the reality of life.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the new documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2017 by Centipede Press).