DVD box sets: Norman Lear, Woodstock and Jack Lemmon

[8 June 2009]

By Bruce Dancis

McClatchy-Tribune News Service (MCT)

This week we’re looking at DVD box sets about a path-breaking TV producer, a memorable rock festival and one of America’s most beloved actors. (List prices are included, but significant discounts may be found at video stores and online retailers.)

“The Norman Lear Collection” (19 discs, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, $159.95, not rated): This outstanding box set shows how producer Norman Lear helped change the face — and the content — of television, beginning in the 1970s. Included are the first seasons of seven shows produced by Lear: “All in the Family,” “Sanford & Son,” “Maude,” “Good Times,” “The Jeffersons,” “One Day at a Time” and “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.”

With humor and heart, these shows took on the controversial issues of the times — such as racism, the Vietnam War, feminism and abortion rights, single motherhood and poverty. They presented American TV audiences with families whose variety and diversity provided a marked contrast with the small-town, middle-class, white image of American life presented by hit sitcoms of the 1950s and ‘60s like “Father Knows Best,” “Leave It To Beaver” and “The Donna Reed Show.”

What’s new is six hours of short features and recent interviews and reminiscences with Lear and many of his stars, including Rob Reiner, Bea Arthur (who passed away in April), Adrienne Barbeau, Jimmie Walker, Bonnie Franklin and Louise Lasser. The set also includes the never-before-released pilot episode of “All in the Family” — then called “Those Were the Days” — and the pilot for Lear’s short-lived series “And Justice for All.”

Lear, who will turn 87 in July, went on to found the human rights organization People for the American Way, the Norman Lear Center at USC and the Environmental Media Association. And he’s still raising hell; these days, he writes a blog for the liberal online site the Huffington Post.

“Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace and Music – The Director’s Cut 40th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition” (3 discs, Warner Home Video, $59.98, rated R): The Beatles weren’t there — the fracturing Fab Four were in a London recording studio, making “Abbey Road.” The Rolling Stones didn’t come — they were rehearsing for their own U.S. tour slated to begin a bit later in 1969. And Bob Dylan, who lived not too far from the Bethel, N.Y., site of the festival, passed on the opportunity, preferring to get ready for a British rock festival on the Isle of Wight.

But the happening forever known as Woodstock did just fine without the Big Three, attracting more than 500,000 fans to witness the Who, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Janis Joplin, Country Joe & the Fish, the Jefferson Airplane and a bunch of other big-name performers and to take part in a remarkable three-day experiment in peaceful counter-cultural living. And although the festival itself reportedly lost money, the three-hour film version, released in 1970, took in over $50 million at the U.S. box office, won an Oscar for best documentary and, reportedly, saved the Warner Bros. studio.

In 1994, an expanded Director’s Cut was released, and that nearly four-hour version is included in this 40th anniversary set. The new material here is an additional disc with two more hours of performances (some new, some seen in only partial form before), including the Who doing “My Generation” (without smashing any guitars) and Creedence Clearwater Revival, whose appearance was not featured even in the Director’s Cut, performing “Born on the Bayou,” “I Put A Spell On You” and “Keep On Chooglin.’” There’s also a collection of recent interviews with director Michael Wadleigh, members of his crew (including Martin Scorsese, who was an editor and assistant director on the film), and some of the performers about the event, its logistics and its impact. This Ultimate Collector’s Edition also comes with festival memorabilia and a reprint of Life Magazine’s commemorative issue. (A Blu-ray edition with even more bonus features is also available, for $69.99, as is a more limited, two-disc Special Edition DVD, for $24.98.)

“The Jack Lemmon Film Collection” (6 discs, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, $59.95, not rated): I don’t want to overstate the significance of this box set featuring five comedies and a documentary on the enduringly popular American actor who passed away in 2001. It doesn’t include any of Lemmon’s great films for director Billy Wilder, such as “Some Like it Hot,” or his forays opposite Walter Matthau, like “The Odd Couple.” Nor are there any of his Oscar-winning (“Mr. Roberts,” “Save the Tiger”) or Oscar-nominated (“Days of Wine and Roses,” “Missing,” plus four others) performances.

But the collection does showcase Lemmon’s gifts as an everyman comic actor in six films he made for Columbia Pictures from 1954 to 1964. Lemmon re-teams with his “It Should Happen to You” costar Judy Holliday in “Phffft!,” playing a married couple who get divorced, only to find that divorced life is even more difficult than married life; stars as a scheming Army private in the barracks comedy “Operation Mad Ball”; plays an American diplomat in London in “The Notorious Landlady,” costarring Kim Novak; stars as a lecherous landlord in “Under the Yum Yum Tree,” and plays an advertising agent in the suburban marital comedy “Good Neighbor Sam.”

The set also includes “Jack Lemmon: The Man Behind the Magic,” an entertaining documentary hosted by his son Chris and based on Chris Lemmon’s book “Jack Lemmon: The Man Behind the Magic.” The documentary primarily consists of reflections on Lemmon, the man, his craft and his love of golf from actors Shirley MacLaine, Kevin Spacey, Cliff Robertson and others, writer Larry Gelbart, golfer Peter Jacobsen and movie critic Joe Baltake (my long-time colleague at the Sacramento Bee).

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/dvd-box-sets-norman-lear-woodstock-and-jack-lemmon/