For a movie about the creator of some of the most pointed, controversial comedies in television history, “Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You” has a curious habit of sidestepping some of the thornier and more interesting aspects of its subject’s life.
The brisk documentary, co-directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, certainly serves as a fine, celebratory introduction into the career of Lear, the prolific show runner (before that job title was coined and worshiped) behind such acclaimed ‘70s hits as “All in the Family,” “Maude,” “The Jeffersons” and “Good Times.” Problem is, most people seeing this movie probably know all the talking points the movie presents. It’d be nice to discover something new about the man.
Lear, who will turn 94 later this month, remains active, sharp and curious about the world and human nature. The filmmakers followed him around on a recent book tour, including a 2014 appearance on “The Daily Show” (good to see Jon Stewart again, if only for a couple of minutes) and a PEN American Center honor, introduced by Amy Poehler. Footage from these events is interspersed with a fresh interview of Lear looking back on his life. There’s also an interesting framing device featuring a child actor playing a young version of Lear, underlining his youthful vigor as well as the way his childhood informed his career.
Lear reveals that he based his most famous creation, Archie Bunker, “All in the Family’s” bigoted patriarch, on his own racist, sexist father, who was jailed for fraud when Lear was 9. Critics often called Archie a “lovable bigot,” a term that Carol O’Connor, the brilliant actor who portrayed him, didn’t like. He’s an unhappy man, O’Connor said, poisoned by his prejudices.
The show was Lear’s attempt to understand his father and reconcile his love for him. “How could your father be wrong?” Archie asks in one episode, after revealing a time when his dad hit him and locked him in a closet for hours. “How can any man who loves you tell you anything that’s wrong?” Decades later, Lear cries as he watches the scene.
At the height of his success, Lear had six shows in the Nielsen Top 10. “Good Times,” which followed a black family dealing with the realities of life in a housing project in inner-city Chicago, was one of them. It was groundbreaking in its topicality. But it was not a happy set as Lear battled with the show’s stars, Esther Rolle and John Amos, over the show’s tone, particularly after costar Jimmie Walker’s “Dy-no-mite!” catchphrase took off with viewers. “You can have comedy without buffoonery,” Rolle said. Lear did not agree.
The filmmakers include a new interview with Amos – who was fired from the show and his character killed off – and an archival account from Rolle, but don’t press the issue of racial representation. Likewise, the treatment of the disintegration of Lear’s marriage to his second wife, Frances, is rushed. We’re told she suffered from manic depression and attempted suicide. And that’s pretty much where the movie leaves her after earlier making much of her importance in Lear’s life.
Lear left TV in 1978, saying he wanted to “exercise some other muscles.” If you simply went by what you saw in this deferential documentary, you’d think Lear never returned to the medium after he founded the progressive advocacy group People for the American Way in 1981.
But Lear made several attempts at producing new shows in subsequent decades. A couple of them – “704 Hauser,” “Sunday Dinner” – made it to the air with great fanfare, but failed spectacularly. Why didn’t viewers give them a chance? Did tastes change? Did Lear lose his topical touch? He likely has some thoughts on those subjects but the questions are never raised.
Near the end of the movie, we see Lear visit Sony Studios for a meeting. The clip lasts for less than a minute and goes unexplained. I’m guessing it had to do with “Guess Who Died,” a sitcom set in a retirement community that Lear has been pitching for the last five years. (No takers. Undesirable demographic, he has been told.) Lear also has a reboot of his 1970s sitcom, “One Day at a Time,” currently in production at Netflix with Rita Moreno starring. He’s still out there, trying to make waves. This documentary, though, seems more interested in consigning him to a museum.
‘Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You’
MPAA rating: Unrated
Running time: One hour, 31 minutes
Playing: Landmark’s Nuart Theatre in West Los Angeles