In the new documentary, Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You, directors Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing celebrate the life of Norman Lear. Though they is herald him as the saviour of television, the film lacks deeper analysis.
In the new documentary, Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You, Norman Lear is heralded as the saviour of television. As the creator of such monumental shows as All in the Family, The Jeffersons, and Maude, several colleagues and fans credit him as being a pioneer of progressive television storytelling. In the early 1970s, when TV was populated by shows like Flying Nun, Lear brought flawed characters to the small screen. Directors Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing successfully celebrate Lear’s life but the film lacks deeper analysis.
The film is most successful when showing the genesis of Lear’s greatest works, the feminist show Maude and the family sitcom All in the Family. Maude, which starred Bea Arthur, was based on Lear’s then-wife Francine Lear, herself a feminist activist. Unlike most TV personalities of the time, Maude was a very tall, older, and affronting Jewish woman with a dry sense of humour. The most controversial episode of Maude dealt with 50-year-old Maude deciding to have an abortion, a right Francine fought for. It was particularly ground-breaking for Lear, a man in his forties, to write about such controversial women’s issues – clearly Francine’s influence. Flawed characters were the key to All in the Family, which thrived because of Lear’s depiction of the relationship between conservative Archie Bunker and his left wing son-in-law Michael. This relationship resembles Lear’s own connection with his often absent conservative father.
Grady and Ewing omit key details of Lear’s life, which means their portrait of him is incomplete. As soon as Francine stops serving as Lear’s inspiration, she is dropped from the story. Although Lear mentions she suffered from mental illness and attempted suicide near the end of their marriage — at the time, he was busy working on five shows — the film offers no further analysis on her suffering from either her point of view or that of her immediate family. She is simply replaced by Lear’s second wife. The filmmakers are too busy glorifying Lear to look deeply at how his work took a toll on his family, which does the influential and independent Francine a disservice.
Because the film’s focus is on Lear’s life, Ewing and Grady sidestep how he developed as a writer, even though his writing accounts for so much of his legacy. His first attempt at a show about African American characters, Good Times, was considered a failure because it did not authentically depict a black perspective. The Jeffersons was Lear’s corrective in that the family was proud and wanted to better themselves in society; they didn’t fall into the buffoonery and stereotyping that Good Times encouraged. Despite footage of the writers roundtables and rehearsals on Good Times, there was no footage from The Jeffersons, making it difficult to decipher how Lear learned from his mistakes. Were there more black writers on The Jeffersons? How different were the lead female characters in each show? Many questions were left unanswered.
Fortunately, Ewing and Grady’s high esteem for Lear doesn’t cause them to shy away from Lear’s personal failings. The film emphasizes how Lear was affected by his absent father, who went to jail when Lear was nine. Years later, Lear’s focus would become being a good provider for his family, even if that meant that like his father, Lear was often absent. This caused strain in his first marriage to Francine and ultimately led to divorce. Furthermore, because Lear never had a strong paternal presence in his life, he latched onto a friend’s story about his grandfather in order to romanticize his own life and bury the painful memories of his past.
As most of the interviews are conducted on a soundstage, these give the film a behind-the-scenes feel, appropriate for the story of a famous behind-the-scenes television creator. Lear is placed slightly off center in a director’s chair, in a medium close up with the lights visible in the background. It’s as if he’s on a work break from shooting his sitcoms. Seated in a comfortable black leather chair with a darker backdrop, Grady and Ewing capture his recollections with intimacy. The profile close up shots of Lear capture gravitas and lightheartedness from this 93-year-old wonder.
While the directors capture an authentic response from Lear, this wasn’t always the case in the other interviews with colleagues and family. Most of these were also shot on a soundstage, which had a patch of 1970s wallpaper in the corner, a callback to Lear’s peak period in 1970s television. However, when colleagues watch and react to clips from Lear’s shows on a big projector screen, the subjects’ reactions to the comedy feel staged rather than spontaneous; sometimes, the reactions looked so stiff that it seems like it might have required multiple takes to capture their response to the footage.
When Lear reflects on his childhood, Ewing and Grady cut to reenactments played out on a stage by a young boy playing the young Lear. But their insistence on connecting the 93-year-old Lear to his younger self by having both wear the same hat — a man still young and innocent at heart — is distracting from the already captivating main subject. In one flashback, young Lear reacts to a preacher on the radio, while Lear shares an anecdote of his first time hearing anti-semitic rhetoric in the early 1930s. But filtering Lear’s story through the young boys eyes, watching a preacher on a large screen, has a distancing effect: we’re focused on the images rather than the honesty of Lear’s words, which reveal his pain.
Fortunately, when Lear narrates by reading from his memoir in his own words, a more emotionally available man emerges behind the legendary TV personality. He gets choked up when describing painful memories. This is the Lear behind the legend, and it’s beautifully depicted. Lear’s vulnerability and openness is the reason to see the film, despite its other flaws.