NORMAN LEAR: ANOTHER VERSION OF YOU (2016) review
produced by: Suzanne Hillinger and Brent Miller
directed by: Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady
runtime: 91 min.
U.S. release date: January 21, 2016 (Sundance) and July 8, 2016 (limited)
“Norman Lear: Another Version of You” is an important documentary for viewers who have no clue or who the ground-breaking 93-year-old television producer/writer is and enlightening experience for those who already knew of his influential make on television history. This is a guy that at one time had six of the top ten sitcom series in primetime television. That’s right, there was a time when you could find smart, relevant and poignant content through the prism of both drama and comedy when you turned on the television at night. The 70s wasn’t just an amazing time for movies, it was also a time when topics that has risen to the national consciousness such as war abortion, racism and feminism, could be found on CBS shows that Lear created like “All in the Family”, “Maude”, “Good Times” and “The Jeffersons” – all classic shows with timeless, indelible characters.
Documentarians Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing (“Jesus Camp” and “Detropia”) have made a film that looks back on the legacy of Norman Lear, while putting the still-spry icon front and center. It’s a dynamic portrait at the man behind the shows he’s known for and also a very creative collage of both his past and present, offering a look at the rich convictions and philosophy of a man who could write great comedy for Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis and also open up a vulnerable dialogue to an American audience that wasn’t ready to talk about subjects such as homosexuality, cancer and bigotry (mainly because we didn’t know how). Lear believed all the characters in the shows he created were real and not that far-removed from anyone in the audience – that were simply “Another Version of You”.
The film is bookended by a live-audience sit-down interview with Lear, which finds the man in the trademark hat openly reflecting on his past with a song and a smile and a tear in his eye. Throughout the film, Grady and Ewing show Lear and some of the actors he’s worked with, like Rob Reiner and John Amos sitting on a sound stage and viewing clips from the award-winning shows they were a part of. We watch as they are showered with memories and nostalgia just as we the viewers are since so many of us grew up watching Archie Bunker and George Jefferson. These aren’t just talking heads moments, like we see in so many documentaries, these are talented artists who are given the time to sit down and take stock in their own careers. In that sense, these moments add a special experience for those on the screen and those watching them.
“Another Version of You” is sprinkled with appearances by recognizable talents who grew up on Lear’s work like Amy Poehler and Jon Stewart as well as collaborators like George Clooney, Bill Moyers, Russell Simmons, and “Everybody Loves Raymond”creator Phil Rosenthal, all of whom provide their own recollections on the TV legend in separate sit-down interviews. There’s a wonderful but all too brief moment where Lear – who glides along a set faster than folks half his age – is filmed hanging out with his equally iconic peers Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner. Lear’s leathery face can be seen smiling from ear to ear, like a kid hanging with his pals, as he recalls the good old days with his two friends. It’s sweet and funny to watch these old wise guys together and something I could’ve watched all day.
In between the current conversations with Lear, we’re given a look back at his childhood and his early work getting into the business of writing, as he narrates (sometimes for the audio of his 2014 memoir Even This I Get to Experience). We learn that as a child he viewed his father as an optimistic and outgoing personality, whose actions led him to be incarcerated by the time Norman turned nine years-old. His mother gave him up to other relatives and eventually he wound up being raised by his grandparents, who left an indelible impact on Lear to be “a provider” in life. Both of his parents would influence his creation of Archie and Edith Bunker. From his first job selling hot dogs at Coney Island to his tour in WWII as a radio operator aboard a B17 Bomber and on to his trek to Los Angeles to write scripts for comedy shows, “Another Version of You” captures Lear’s candid reflections on the vivid memories that shaped who he’d become known for.
The film spends a good amount of time covering the impact of the controversial “All in the Family”, which broke ground for shows like “Roseanne”, “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “The Simpsons”, for its delivery of real life through laughter. It’s touching to see Reiner reflect on the impact the show had for him and the generation in America that wasn’t yet ready for a comedy that would tackle the social and political issues of the time, but Lear breaks down with admiration and respect for the work Carroll O’Connor. I had seen clips before around the time O’Connor died, but this doc reminded me how conflicted the liberal actor was with having to portray such an incredibly bigoted, racist and miserable character. We’re also shown footage of O’Connor and Lear appearing on talk shows like Dick Cavett, during the height of show’s popularity. Seeing Lear handling interview questions with such wit, openness and coolness (despite many of them intended to provoke), speaks to his own curiosity and interest in connecting with an audience.
The film also covers the struggles Lear had in getting material for his shows greenlit even after they were embraced by audiences. But as the world was changing, television (one of the last mediums to change at the time) had to change as well and storylines like abortion on “Maude” (which earned 65 million views) or the death of a loved one in “All in the Family”. If Lear pushed boundaries before, he would push buttons as he captured the life of a real African-American family on “Good Times”, which was a spin-off from “Maude”. Sure, it became a hit, but its depiction of life in a Chicago housing project and its humor rubbed certain viewers the wrong way, especially once Jimmie Walker’s famous, “Dynamite!” became a crutch for the show. The show’s lead actress Esther Rolle also took issues with some of the material written for the show, stating much of it came across as perpetuating black stereotypes. I never knew how “Good Times” was received by the African-American community, so learning of this and seeing the behind-the-scenes rehearsals for the show was quite enlightening.
Ewing and Grady kind of skirt around this valid issue though by allowing Lear to explain that although he wasn’t black, he was still – a father, a son, a brother – from a humble background like anyone else. Nevertheless, the pressure of the responsibility of portraying television’s only black family weighed heavily on the actors (as Amos admits here) and the writers, especially with the show often receiving frustrated mail from viewers saying as much.
Then Lear created “The Jeffersons”, which showed a black family “movin’ on up/to a dee-lux apartment in the sky”, which was a response to seeing a show set in the projects. It was just as hilarious as “Good Times” and almost as controversial as the show it spun off from (“All in the Family”) tackling issues such as: alcoholism, racism, suicide, gun control and adult illiteracy and early on in the show the use of the words “N-word” and “honky” were used occasionally (it’s where I learned of them as a kid), until they toned it down a bit as the show progressed. “The Jeffersons” definitely had a better reception than “Good Times” and would go on to run 11 seasons, becoming the longest-running sitcom ever.
Like many documentaries that follow an individual with a noteworthy career, “Another Version of You” also covers the somewhat fractured domestic life of Lear. We learn he had a seemingly great marriage to activist and writer, Frances Lear – who is often credited for Lear’s creation of Bea Arthur’s Maude, yet debunked by Frances – but the collapse of that marriage, resulted in Lear leaving television temporarily to spend more time with his family. Some of his adult children are interviewed and while it appears he was there for them during the height of his television career, he was obviously quite busy.
The second half of the film covers Lear’s semi-retirement activity, leading to his political activism during the Reagan era. In response to the politicizing of religion by the likes of Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and Jimmy Swaggart of the Prominent Religious Right, Lear formed the People For the American Way to challenge the Moral Majority. It was during this time that he met his current wife, Lynn, a psychologist who he had twins with at the ripe age of 60 years-old. Much of this material will be new to viewers like me, who only have knowledge of Lear as a pioneer of television and for that reason, Ewing and Grady offer more than just a greatest hits doc.
“Norman Lear: Another Version of You” is at its best when we simply hear what Lear has learned along his journey. His curious mind is still young at heart and life lessons like “you and you alone are responsible for your own happiness” gives us an understanding of his longevity. In his career, Lear has singlehandedly changed the potential of the television medium, yet what’s more interesting is how he’s embraced over 90 years of life.