Opening night at Sundance brought yet another high-profile world premiere documentary introduced by Robert Redford. Last year it was current Oscar nominee Liz Garbus’s “What Happened, Miss Simone?,” which was released by Netflix. This year it was Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s “Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You,” which will air on PBS’s “American Masters” this fall and may wind up in the Oscar race as well. PBS’ imprint American Masters Pictures and Music Box Films will release the film theatrically, while Netflix has exclusive subscription streaming for US and Canada.
Norman Lear “brought humanity, edge, humor and vulnerability into the mainstream,” said Redford. “We owe him a great debt for that.” Redford also thanked Lear for his early support of the struggling Sundance festival. The 93-year-old Lear, wearing his trademark cap, knew from his first meeting with Ewing and Grady that “these kids were a force,” he said, leaning jauntily on the podium and disdaining a chair. “You know how much I have to take a leak?” he asked the audience of 1300, which rose to its feet at film’s end. “If we all of us could get in bed and get in it together it would express how I am feeling.”
Grady and Ewing persuaded the recent memoirist, who had admired “Jesus Camp,” that there was no time like the present to allow them to present a biodoc on him. He gave them total creative control and final cut.
Answering a question from the audience about Donald Trump, he said, “It’s the American people saying ‘screw you’ to leadership.” He reminded them of what a great Republican leader two-term president Dwight D. Eisenhower was, building interstate highways and warning us about the military industrial complex. “I believe that is what has us by the throat today and they wont talk about it.” He’s currently working on a TVs series due in October: “America Divided.”
“It is all human nature,” he said. “We have to look at ourselves in the mirror of life and understand that we are all capable of anything.”
At Sundance’s daily Cinema Cafe series, Lear and Dunham — whose HBO series, “Girls,” returns for its fifth season February 21, and will end after its sixth — discussed the challenges of treating timely, touchy subjects without sermonizing. Dunham cites the two-part 1972 storyline on Lear’s sitcom “Maude,” in which the title character (Bea Arthur) decides to terminate an unwanted pregnancy, as an exemplar: It was “the first abortion [on TV] that wasn’t treated as a torturous, shameful, stigmatized event.”
For Lear, the key to his groundbreaking comedies — which also include “All in the Family,” perhaps the most influential American TV series of the 1970s, “Sanford and Sons,” and “The Jeffersons” — was reflecting on screen the debates raging at home during that tumultuous time. “There wasn’t any subject we dealt with that wasn’t family talk across the board,” he tells Dunham and moderator Logan Hill. “Illness and the economy and the politics of the moment. There was nothing every family wasn’t talking about.”