Tribute documentaries about famous folk tend to be fairly similar, especially if the subjects are still living. They mainly say that the celebrity is a pretty darn wonderful person — modest but brilliant, witty, accomplished as all get out, fascinating, rich, extremely compassionate, loves his/her life, good with kids, pets dogs. Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing‘s Norman Lear: Just Another Version Of You, which will air as a PBS American Masters special later this year, pretty much sticks to this formula.
I could call it a cut or two above the usual, certainly from a technical standpoint, but Lear, the 93 year-old creator-writer-producer of such legendary ’70s TV series All In the Family, Maude, Sanford and Son, One Day at a Time and The Jeffersons, is never presented as anything but the most happy and wonderful fella. Which he may well be for the most part, but c’mon — everyone has known hurt, failure, shame, regrets. Everyone has aspects of their nature they wish they could iron out or refine. Everyone experiences nightmare flashes from time to time. Including the very wealthiest.
The doc gets into Lear’s feelings about his father but not all that deeply. Grady and Ewing never elicit a single semi-critical remark about Lear from the famous talking heads (Rob Reiner, George Clooney, et, al.). It was obvious during the post-screening q & a that Lear can be a snappy dictatorial type who knows how to crack a whip, but there wasn’t a hint of this in the doc.
I was bothered by several omissions that I learned about later when I visited Lear’s Wikipedia page.
When he was nine Lear’s father went to prison for selling fake bonds, and yet for some reason the doc refuses to say the words “fake bonds.” Nor does it say how long Lear’s dad was in the slammer, when he got out, what his life was like or what his relationship was like with Norman later on, etc. (He died sometime around 1983.) The doc mentions that Norman was later raised by uncles and grandparents, but it doesn’t say why his mother refused to raise him. It doesn’t mention that in 1981 Lear hosted a revival of Quiz Kids, a game show for the CBS Cable Network, for 14 months. It doesn’t mention that he attempted a return to TV production in the ’90s with Sunday Dinner, The Powers That Be and 704 Hauser, and that none of the series proved successful.
All that aside, you could do worse than to watch Norman Lear: Just Another Version Of You when it pops on PBS. It’s fine. Two top-tier critics I spoke to liked it. It won’t give you warts.