New Film Portrays Norman Lear as America’s Conscience
Those who lived through the turbulent seventies and watched All In The Family know how its creator, Norman Lear, revolutionized television sitcoms and went on to become an on-air activist against bigotry and intolerance. For children of the eighties and beyond, who know Lear’s hits only from syndication, the new documentary Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You is a revelation.
The opening scene of Heidi Ewing’s and Rachel Grady’s film shows Lear on a theater stage during an interview in which Lear, 94, recites from his memoir Even This I Get To Experience. His recollections are enacted theatrically by a boy wearing the same kind of hat as Lear’s; it’s almost like watching a live play. This effective framing device underscores Lear’s belief that his inner child has remained intact despite being “forced to become an adult,” as he says, at age 9.
That’s when Lear was shipped off to live with his grandparents after his father was imprisoned for an unspecified crime. The documentary doesn’t dwell on what was obviously a major disruption in Lear’s life, but it does draw a parallel between Lear’s father and his most famous creation, Archie Bunker. At one point, as he watches Carol O’Connor (playing Archie) deliver a monologue about his father shutting him in the closet “out of love,” Lear breaks down in tears. It’s one of many insights the film gives into Lear’s inspirations.
At his peak, Lear was in charge of six of the 10 highest-rated shows on television. The boundary-pushing nature of those shows is elucidated by celebrities who are clearly in thrall of him, including Amy Poehler, George Clooney, and Mel Brooks, who say Lear was the first to bring hot-button issues of race, class, and sexuality into homes. The filmmakers spend ample time on their subject’s prolific work, as well as the controversies stirred up by All In The Family, Maude, (whose central character is an uncompromising feminist woman), and TV’s first black family sitcoms, Good Times and The Jeffersons.
In the film’s second half, we begin to see the other Norman Lear – the patriot, the outspoken critic of the far right, and the proud Jewish American.
His first discovery of being Jewish in a country that didn’t always accept Jews is told in a devastating reenactment of his 9-year-old self listening to a radio broadcast that contends, “Jews, through their native ability, have risen to such high places…perhaps this persecution is only the coincidental last straw that has broken the back of this generation’s patience.”
The film draws a clear connection between Lear’s Jewishness and his Americanism. We learn that he served in World War II, despite being exempt as a student, because as he puts it, “I wanted to be a Jew who served.” This robust patriotism becomes Lear’s defining attribute.
As the film follows Lear into retirement, the mood shifts. He begins to inhabit his role as America’s liberal conscience, in opposition to the politics of Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, a public stance that causes his enemies to label him “anti-Christian” and Falwell to brand him “the number one enemy of the American family and our generation.”
Here, the documentary synchronizes with our current national debate. Lear was as big a TV figure as it gets, and he has used his status even after leaving the business. As the film puts it, he became “the first response to an un-American strain of bigotry.”
Few entertainers today have stepped up in similar fashion. At one point, we watch as Jon Stewart visits Lear in his dressing room before The Daily Show and says, “You raised me,” to which Lear responds, “No, you raised me.” It’s a sublime moment of mutual admiration between two Jewish men who reached the heights of TV popularity and walked away, both remaining champions of American values. If ever there were a successor to Lear, it’s Stewart.
But the encounter is a passing one, and the film doesn’t place it in a wider context. Similarly, the film stays largely laudatory, not dwelling on the ups and downs of Lear’s personal life. Notably glossed over are the impact of his ex-wife’s suicide attempt and hints that his older children may have seen him as an absent father.
Still, Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You is a celebration of the life of a remarkable man. The behind-the-scenes insights into his famous shows are compelling, but it’s his later role as the conscience of America that’s the real takeaway. In our current political climate, we could use a few more Norman Lears.