Infusing the reel with the real
January 23, 2016
It would be easy to dismiss "Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You," the opening night film of this year’s Sundance Festival, as "just" a documentary about television giant Norman Lear and his body of work. Unless or until you consider his life, which at 93 he showed us he was still actively living — that was his actual body of work.
A very funny man, Lear sees the world with all its flaws, through a lens of satire and humor. His own life, which included a father imprisoned for criminal behavior, a missing mother and a childhood shuttled among relatives, is the grist for the writing mill writers feed from for a lifetime. And Lear did. He used those early childhood experiences to create characters and tell stories and entertain to buffer the pain for most of his life.
The litany of writing credits is impressive, from Martin and Lewis to Martha Raye to the film "Divorce American Style." But in the ’70s he hit the public consciousness with the show All In The Family. It featured a bigot as the father, a muddled-headed mother, an airy sweet daughter and a son-in-law who was what we called a socialist back then. The show was, as the rest of his shows would turn out to be, his attempt to hold a mirror up to the American people and show them their irrational unkind selves — who always had the option of redemption, and used humor to make their points. The Jeffersons would follow, as would Sanford and Son , Mary Hartman and Maude — a strong-willed feminist who was rumored to be based on Lear’s wife. At one point, the films tells us, he had six of the top ten television shows on the air.
The film carefully profiles the man and where he drew from his pain and his past, including being a bomber pilot in World War II. And though his ground breaking television shows had haters calling him a litany of un-American slurs and slams ( he made Nixon’s enemies list), his patriotism was also a core of his passion.
By the start of the 1980s Lear had walked away from the television writing business, he and his wife Frances divorced, and he became increasingly concerned with the shift in politics — especially the new religious right. As a Jew, he felt strongly that religion was religion and politics were politics and merging the two was something the founding fathers not only never intended but warned against. He formed People for the American Way, which focused on First Amendment rights and liberal causes. He was labeled an atheist and communist and more. But the increasingly dangerous blend of politics and religion fueled by venomous free speech convinced him — "It’s all the entertainment business."
In the early 2000s he purchased a copy of the Declaration of Independence so he could tour it around the country and show America its "birth certificate." He engaged performers to come with him and to act out pieces of the document and try to interpret how those words could and did still resonate today.
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And toward the end of the film, we hear him tell the sweetest story of how his grandfather had written to the president every week and how each letter started, "My dearest darling president," and then would continue with either praise for a job well done or a criticism offered in kind words for something he disagreed with. As a little boy each week he’d race to the mailbox to see the letters that came back from the White House. And how this had lasted over several presidents. It was a touching story. And he finally confessed, not his. He had made parts of it up and appropriated other pieces from a real story from a childhood friend. Because he wanted that to have been his life. To have had a strong father figure who would have done something so meaningful and powerful.
His confession was when I cried. Because it touches the heart of all writers and really all humans. The desire to create something-a piece of a life-that we wanted instead of the one we had. The sincerity of the confession and genuine angst it caused him might have been a result of entering therapy for the first time — at age 85.
When the film was over and the audience stayed in their standing ovation for minutes until Norman walked on stage, trademark hat on his head, we saw the pride of the filmmakers and the adoration of their subject. We heard filmmaker Rachel say, "Art is an act of rebellion" and the artists, real and imagined in the room, cheered. Norman answered questions and charmed us and inspired us to think — if 93 can look and sound and act like that, maybe there is less to fear and more to embrace.
The rest this week is up to us. We can spend our time talking about helicopters landing in frozen alfalfa fields or parking and lack of it on Main Street, or we can jump right in and see films and listen to filmmakers and understand we all have stories seeped in different pain and joy and never mind our country of origin or religion or politics, understanding how we are alike is where the sweet stuff connects. The title of the documentary film is the same as the bumper sticker Norman created at this chapter of life. It is how he identifies with his fellow man… "another version of you."
Wear that bumper sticker behind your eyes this week as you bump into those people and situations that have the potential to tip you over. We’re all making up stories to hide pain. Not every day, perhaps, but some days, like Sunday in the Park…
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the director of the Park City Institute, which provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.