There has never been a better time in America to reconsider the importance of television’s role in the political discourse.
Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You, directed by Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing. At Kendall Square Cinema, Cambridge, MA
By Peg Aloi
At 93 years of age, Norman Lear is as lively and articulate as one would wish an entertainment icon to be. Brush off those pesky fleeting thoughts (Where has he been? Is he still alive?) and understand that not having written or produced any television series in recent years has no bearing on Lear’s vitality or eloquence, which have not only not faded, but matured like fine cognac. In his signature white hat (he started wearing it when a nervous habit of scratching his head while writing teleplays made much of his hair fall out), Lear is warm, jovial, and completely straightforward as he traces the story of his life for documentarians Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing (the team behind Jesus Camp and Detropia).
Lear has just published a memoir (Even This I Get to Experience), and has been promoting it with radio and TV interviews, some of them chronicled here. The film uses a somewhat precious conceit of a young boy wearing Lear’s hat, tracing faces in old photo albums with his fingers; thankfully, this device used to convey the connection of memory to the making of art doesn’t overpower the film’s intelligence, perceptive revelations or entertainment value.
Arguably the most well-known television writer of the 1970s, but generally absent from the public eye for the last several decades, it seems like a perfect time to reflect upon the storytelling gifts of the man who changed television forever. Lear traces his early experiences trying to break into writing, but first we learn a bit about Lear’s childhood and the painful experiences surrounding his father’s incarceration when Lear was a young boy. Lear’s father, who he describes as lovable and hardworking but prone to poor judgment, was a big influence on Lear’s most beloved and influential creation: Archie Bunker, the patriarch of All in the Family, a grumpy bigot who slowly evolves, played by Carroll O’Connor.
Bud Yorkin, Lear’s writing partner, tells of seeing the British television comedy Til Death Us Do Part while living in England, and sending a tape of it to Lear, suggesting they try to do an American version. Lear is all in, pairing a conservative father with a progressive son (or son-in-law, in the case of Rob Reiner’s Michael Stivic), and says he “never had reason to regret it.” All in the Family was born, was hugely successful (and controversial), and subsequent spin-offs (The Jeffersons and Maude) were equally popular, as well as Good Times, a show about a black inner city family struggling with racism and economic disadvantages.
We’re shown a number of scenes from the show, but we see one from early on that’s an apt example of why the show hit home and raised ire almost immediately. Mike is wearing a tie-dyed shirt and beads, sitting next to Archie in his clean but somewhat shabby Astoria, Queens working class living room (the show took place largely in this single room set) while Archie reads the paper. He still refers to his father-in-law as “Mr. Bunker,” and the two argue about a Vietnam war protest in the news, with Archie stubbornly reciting the lyrics of “God Bless America” while Mike passionately defends the protesters’ rights to dissent, and the scene flares up when Archie says “God Bless America, you dumb Polack,” showcasing Archie’s signature bigotry, which infuriates most of the people he comes in contact with. Mike screams “You’re prejudiced!” and threatens to walk out, while Archie’s wife Edith (Jean Stapleton) and daughter Gloria (Sally Struthers) try to keep the peace. Mike storms out, Edith is dumbfounded, and Gloria cries while Archie finishes by singing in rough stentorian fashion.
If you watched these shows as I did, you know no topic was off-limits: the Vietnam war, civil rights, women’s liberation, abortion, rape, homosexuality, etc. Lear and his team brought the conversation on the streets into peoples’ living rooms, via an unusual formula: a situation comedy, screened before a live audience for more authentic reactions that the usual canned laughtrack, and offering dramatic and often shocking moments of pathos within a genre that had previously never wavered from its formula. It was an enormous risk, but perfectly calibrated to engage a conversation about America’s social climate during this most turbulent era, and it changed everything. Just after the aforementioned scene, we’re shown tape of President Richard Nixon discussing the show, which he says is about “the Communists and the left wingers.”
We hear from other entertainment luminaries, and we see footage of Lear marching for women’s rights alongside his wife Frances (who dispels the rumor that she was the model for the character of Maude, Archie’s feminist cousin). There’s a great scene from Maude where an imposing Bea Arthur tells her English maid there is no discrimination of the sexes in her house, and Mrs. Naugatuck (English character actress Hermione Baddeley) quips, “Oh, blimey, another Vanessa Redgrave!” and Arthur calmly states “I prefer to think of myself as a tall Jane Fonda.” Lear and Yorkin’s ability to access the zeitgeist and, with humor and satire, draw on it to elevate the national discourse, has never been matched. Watching this documentary is not only a fascinating exploration of one of television’s greatest artists, but, in the midst of what many are now calling a Golden Age of Television, a potent reminder of how deeply engaged we have been (and are) with this mode of storytelling. There has never been a better time in America to reconsider the importance of television’s role in the political discourse; how sad that no show in Lear’s wake has come close to using comedy so deftly as a tool to raise consciousness.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for The Boston Phoenix. She has taught film studies for a number of years at Emerson College and is currently teaching media studies at SUNY New Paltz. Her reviews have appeared in Art New England and Cinefantastique Online, and she writes a media blog for Patheos.com called The Witching Hour.