It’s impossible to overstate the importance of television producer Norman Lear to American culture. For “All in the Family” alone, he deserves a special place in the TV firmament, having taken the medium out of the realm of skits and fluffy sitcoms and placing it squarely within the purview of politics at their most contentious and caustically personal.
Then there’s “Maude” — and “Good Times,” “The Jeffersons,” and so on. For at least one generation, television doesn’t exist without Lear’s singular vision.
All of these contributions are duly celebrated in “Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You,” Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s profile of a man who, at 93, still has it gratifyingly together. Filmed while Lear was writing his autobiography, the film revisits several episodes from Lear’s life, including an unhappy childhood in Connecticut, when, at age 9, he watched his father being carted off to jail. (No one ever told him why; it turned out his dad was selling fake bonds.) It also looks at his time spent as a bombardier during World War II; his arrival in Los Angeles, where he wrote his first scripts with his cousin-in-law; and his steady rise through the ranks of show business. At one point, Lear was producing seven of the top 10 shows on television, a pinnacle of success that, unsurprisingly, took a toll on his private life.
The best parts of “Just Another Version of You,” of course, are the clips from those great shows: arguments between Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor) and his son-in-law, Meathead (Rob Reiner); and withering looks from Bea Arthur as the feminist title character in “Maude.” Better still are those occasions when Grady and Ewing film people — either actors from the shows or figures who came of age while they were still on air — watching those scenes. Actor John Amos watches a moment from “Good Times,” for example, and music producer Russell Simmons bursts into still-shocked laughter when a character on “The Jeffersons” hurls a racial epithet.
How telling it is that, 10 years after “All In the Family” went off the air, the most popular TV comedy in America would be a show about nothing.
That Lear’s work still manages to elicit oh-no-they-didn’t whoops testifies to his forthrightness and courage; he spent most of his time at the networks fighting censors. But there were blind spots. Although the title “Just Another Version of You” is inspired by a bumper sticker on Lear’s car and his core belief in universal humanism, when it came to race — especially the “Dy-no-mite” catchphrases and cutting up on “Good Times” — Lear didn’t understand why Amos and his co-star, Esther Rolle, were unhappy with what they saw as minstrelsy.
It would have been illuminating to hear Lear respond more substantively to these issues, just as it would have been interesting to hear more about his relationship with his mother, who’s seen briefly as an elderly woman but virtually never spoken of. (During a Q&A session after the closing-night screening of the film at AFI Docs last month, Lear himself wondered aloud why she was left out.) Instead, Ewing and Grady insert vignettes featuring a young actor playing Lear as a 9-year-old, wandering an empty theater and trying on his analog’s signature white hat. The conceit might have sounded artful on paper, but it doesn’t work on film, taking up time and space that could have been used far more effectively.
Alarmed by the rise of the evangelical right, Lear stepped away from his marquee programs in 1978, founding People For the American Way a few years later, and also devoting himself to activism and starting a new family. (He and his wife, Lyn, had twins when he was 66.) “Just Another Version of You” hits all these points dutifully but, understandably, has trouble finding a natural endpoint. How do you bring a full stop to a life that shows no signs of even slowing down? If, as Lear suggests, laughter adds years, then one more credit should be added to his résumé: lifesaver.
Unrated. At Landmark’s Bethesda Row Cinema. Contains coarse language. 92 minutes.