A gold-standard biopic on the gold-standard television legend.
Whether you know his name or not, you certainly know one of his TV shows. Norman Lear is a man of incomparable stature in the television industry. Lear first began his career writing jokes and skits for stand-up comedy shows of the 1950’s and 60’s. In 1972, Lear’s show All in the Family hit the air. The morning after the show’s premiere episode, a critic famously proclaimed that All in the Family would become the greatest smash hit of the year or the greatest flop of the year. The show ran for nine seasons. Lear was also behind Maude, Good Times, The Jeffersons, One Day at a Time, and Different Strokes.
Lear’s work, the man himself, and his incredible life are the subject of Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You, the latest documentary from legendary duo Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing. The pair begin their story at the beginning of Lear’s life, using his memoir as a kind of backdrop. Many of the stories Lear tells are things for which there is no footage; moments like childhood traumas and early career pitfalls and his time fighting in World War II. To make up for these, Ewing and Grady use a variety of strategies.
The most striking of these is the use of what the directors refer to as an ‘avatar’ to represent a younger version of Lear. They use Keaton Nigel Cooke, a young boy, as a stand-in for young Lear and recreate artistic versions of episodes from Lear’s life. Jewish Lear recounts a story of when he was a child and heard a racist Christian preacher on the radio deliver a sermon against Jews. As he tells the story, we see a surreal bedroom set with ‘Young Norman’ looking at a video of the speech being projected onto the bedroom wall. At other points in the film, the filmmakers make liberal use of archival footage and clips from Lear’s many shows. The final product becomes a nuanced and beautifully layered portrait that follows Lear from his early childhood into his ninety-third year.
Throughout the film the subject matter is Lear and his work. However, Lear’s work was centered on forcing everyday Americans to confront the largest social issues of their times by making them laugh at those issues in sitcoms. Today, shows like Modern Family get us to laugh at serious issues all the time, but in the early 70’s All in the Family changed everything by doing it for the first time.
By focusing so closely on the work Lear produced during his prolific life, the film actually becomes a universal portrait that feels relatable for everyone in the audience. In one of his most poignant moments, Lear insists that all he ever wanted to be was a ‘good provider’. As the film progresses and Lear expounds upon his worldview and how he wanted his shows to express the universality of American life it becomes increasingly clear that Lear has become a ‘good provider’ not only for his own family, but for the family that is all of America. Lear has given something to each of us and provided us each with the permission to laugh at ourselves and laugh at things that make us want to cry.
The film’s title was pulled by the filmmakers from, oddly enough, Lear’s bumper sticker on his car. The sticker says “Just Another Version of You”. Lear looks directly into the camera and says, “I truly believe that,” emphasizing his philosophy that each person is just another version of ourselves. At a crossroads in history that is often portrayed as particularly bleak in the media, everyone can use a little dose of Lear’s kindhearted embrace of all humankind to remind them that we are all human and we are all scared and it’s okay to have a laugh about it.
Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You was created by Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing. The film is currently playing at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and IFC Center. The film was screened as the Opening Night Selection for the Sundance Film Festival.
Photo credits: docedge.nz