Biographical documentaries about showbiz folks can easily coast by on their subjects’ work and personality. Anyone famous enough to warrant his own feature-length documentary has surely accumulated enough anecdotes to fill up an hour or so, throw in some talking heads fawning over the great personage and a few clips from the subject’s work and vintage TV appearances, and you’ve already filled up 90 minutes. While “Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You” never exactly breaks with this format—the film was produced for PBS’s “American Experience” series, which imposes certain constraints—I do credit co-directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady for at least nibbling around the edges of the bio-doc formula.
Ewing and Grady employ some stylized aesthetic interventions, including impressionistic, “Persona”-esque super projections and a framing device featuring a nine-year-old boy (the symbolic representation of the 93-year-old Lear’s inner child, you see). “Just Another Version of You,” which was presented as the closing night film of this year’s AFI Docs festival (with Lear, Ewing, and Grady in conversation), features relatively few clips from Lear’s massive body of work, and the ones that are included have been chosen for thematic, rather than purely nostalgic, reasons. (The ubiquitous Archie-Bunker-meets-Sammy-Davis clip doesn’t make the cut.) Lear tells plenty of stories, but Ewing and Grady seem more interested in him as a person than as a fount of anecdotes about famous people.
Ewing and Grady have, in other words, attempted to evoke Lear’s spirit rather than merely summarize his life. I’m not sure all this stylized noodling really brings us closer to Lear, however. Lear’s politics, from a formative experience hearing the virulently anti-semitic Father Coughlin on radio as a young boy to Lear’s founding of People for the American Way in the ‘80s, receives a fair and robust treatment, as does his personal life, particularly his marriage to feminist activist Frances Lear and his fathering of a son at the age of 66, but when it comes to Lear’s work. We get lots of very personal details about Lear’s upbringing, including his troubled relationship with his mean, abusive father, which offers a kind of organizing motif for Ewing and Grady.
But when it comes to Lear’s body of work, the film is somewhat lacking. Even allowing for a certain amount of necessary abridgment, “Just Another Version of You” still seems half-sketched to me. The film barely touches Lear’s pre-”All in the Family” directing career; “Fernwood 2 Night,” a massively underseen show whose influence can be spotted in everything from “SCTV” to Tim and Eric, warrants only a brief clip; and “Sanford and Son” is never even mentioned (or if it was, I missed it). “All in the Family” naturally receives the most robust treatment. “Maude” is (perhaps inevitably) reduced to its extremely controversial abortion episode. “Good Times” is, rightly or wrongly, treated as a representation of the limits of Lear’s liberalism, a groundbreaking show that put a black family in a sitcom for the first time ever but whose primarily white writers often ended up reinforcing racial stereotypes, much to the black cast’s consternation.
For better and for worse, Ewing and Grady tend to view these Lear’s shows through the lens of the actors who appeared on them. Esther Rolle’s and John Amos’s push back against black stereotypes on “Good Times” offers a vital perspective on that show, while Carroll O’Connor’s discomfort at playing the bigoted Archie Bunker on “All in the Family”is maybe not the most enlightening angle on that classic show. Meanwhile, “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” Lear’s strange and brilliant soap opera parody, is effectively summed up by Louise Lasser’s perplexed reaction to the show.
Taken on its own terms, as an amiable, slightly overreaching portrait of the world’s youngest 93-year-old, “Just Another Version of You” has its charms. It’s impossible not to like Lear, a wry, twinkly old man whose charm and good humor have not been dimmed by age. It’s fun to watch him croon old standards and shoot the shit with the likes of Amy Poehler, Mel Brooks, and Carl Reiner, but, ultimately, the film doesn’t provide a whole lot of insight into Lear’s work. It brings Lear into the present, but while keeping his shows in the past.
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