“Do you know how hard it is to make people laugh, to tackle big issues and get big ratings? It’s so hard that people don’t do it anymore.”
—Amy Poehler introducing Norman Lear at the PEN American Center Lifetime Achievement Awards
One commentator asserts that American television consists of two periods: before Norman Lear, and after. He’s got a point. It’s easy to spot Lear’s impact: simply go to All in the Family at the dawn of the ’70s, and look backward then forward. A marked shift to socioeconomic realism is undeniable. It isn’t fair to credit him alone with that pivotal movement—James L. Brooks and Allen Burns hit the air with The Mary Tyler Moore Show four months before All in the Family—but Lear definitely ran with the idea and pushed it farther than anyone else. As the creative force behind shows like the aforementioned All in the Family, Maude, Sanford and Son, Good Times, The Jeffersons, even One Day at a Time and the controversial subjects they tackled, he was prime time’s Martin Scorsese to, say, Gary Marshall’s Steven Spielberg. That’s a huge accomplishment when you stop to consider that the only TV show ever to deal with abortion head-on was one of Lear’s sitcoms, and that was more than 40 years ago.
With Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady assemble a captivating picture of the man behind the curtain through clips, behind-the-scenes footage, his own readings of excerpts from his memoir Even This I Get to Experience, and an interview just for this film. Lear, who recently turned 94, is fascinatingly open and candid about the highs and lows of his personal life, his career, and what inspired him. In the film’s most touching moments, he discusses his father, what it felt like to hear an anti-Semitic speech on the radio when he was a kid, his admiration for Carroll O’Connor, and a sad incident involving his strong-willed wife. He also sings a ditty with buddies Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner, which is priceless. In its most interesting moment, Good Times star Esther Rolle confronts him about his depiction of black Americans. It is, to say the least, dy-no-mite.
Comments from a number of celebrities like Jon Stewart, George Clooney, Rob Reiner, and John Amos add depth and demonstrate the reach of Lear’s work. The highlights, however, come from Lear himself. It would have been nice if the directors pushed things a little farther and did away with the dramatization of Lear as a young boy, but I can only hope I live to see the future like he does: clearly, these are the days.
(Music Box) B