Mary Tyler “Molly” Ivins was a journalist, columnist, popular author, commentator with an acerbic wit, a Texan, a humorist and a liberal. Her story and her long and colorful career are brought to amusing and insightful light by documentary filmmaker Janice Engels in “Raise Hell! The Life and Times of Molly Ivins.”
I have to be honest, I knew little to nothing about Molly Ivins and her career, so I am very glad that documentary filmmaker Engels made her theatrical feature debut with the story of Molly and her fight against political corruption in Texas and beyond. That the lady had an incredible wit – she could have been another Lenny Bruce – makes listening to her Texas twang and her many stories a lot of fun.
One of the many things I learned about Molly Ivins from this astute documentary is her quick wit and capable delivery (hence my Lenny reference). Of Texan congressman James B. Collins (Dallas-R), “If his IQ slips any lower we’ll have to water him twice a day.” On politics in Texas: “Texas politics is like Hungarian wine…it doesn’t travel well.” On Pat Buchanan’s speech during the 1992 Republican convention, it “probably sounded better in the original German.” The list goes on.
Molly’s story is told with all of the baggage and personal trials that she faced – three bouts with cancer and a battle with alcoholism – along with her professional career that culminated in national syndication in 400 newspapers. That career, and her telling her stories about it and all the paths she crossed – George W. Bush, former Texas governor Anne Richards. Newt Gingrich, publisher Abe Rosenthal, Pat Buchanan, among many others – has the effect of putting you there with Molly as she made friends and enemies. I give it a B+.
A young woman growing up in River Oaks, Texas, was described by her mother as 'the smart one' while her sister was called 'the pretty one,' leading the first to think she was ugly and the second to consider herself dumb. The 'smart one' reached a height of six feet by the age of twelve and began sparring with her ultra-conservative oilman dad, beginning with issues of race. Her love of writing and literature combined with concern for the Bill of Rights led her into a career as a political columnist. The woman and her life's work prove as entertaining as they are inspiring in "Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins."
Cowriter (with editor Monique Zavistovski)/director Janice Engel found a great subject when she went to see the one woman Kathleen Turner play 'Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins.' Engel introduces the 'big-boned' blue-eyed blonde telling us she's a Texan through and through, loving her pickup truck, beer and hunting. She was also a liberal in Texas at a time when that was 'worse than being a Communist or child molester,' according to the owner of The Texas Observer, one of many publications where Texas lawmakers were skewered by her wit. And, unless you are a hardcore Republican, or maybe even if you are, her words will have you rolling in the aisles.
Ivins kept her subjects close, going out drinking with the men she ridiculed in print. Her ability to hold her liquor was legendary, at least until her later years when, combined with a cancer diagnosis, the booze began to get the better of her (she got sober just as she faced her worst health crisis). She was also unusual for even being a female journalist at the time, getting her Masters Degree to avoid getting assigned to lifestyle puff pieces, although her first job at the Houston Chronicle found her paying her dues. It wasn't until she went to Minneapolis that she began to be assigned political stories, sent out into the field to cover some dangerous events during the turbulent '60s, but she really came into her own when she came back home to edit The Texas Observer alongside Kaye Northcott. She was then courted by The New York Times, which didn't
know what to make of the woman who strode around barefoot with her dog named 'Sh*&%t.' (They gave her the Elvis Presley obit, then sent her to cover his funeral, then sent her to be their one woman Denver bureau covering multiple western states. She had frequent run-ins with the home office who often changed her colorful language and got a personal call from the editor over her description of a chicken slaughter as a 'gang pluck.')
Engel employs a pretty standard docu-bio template, telling a linear story from Ivins' childhood through her death using stills, archival footage and talking heads like Dan Rather, Rachel Maddow, Ivins' sister Sara and her self-described apolitical brother Andy who she lived with on the family farm in later years. Friends included the likes of Texas governor Ann Richards, whose daughter, Planned Parenthood's Cecile Richards, opines here (and leaves us to just try and imagine the side-splitting hilarity of that duo together). Ivins' words, such as 'Polarizing people is a good way to win an election and a good way to wreck a country,' are prophetic. "Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins" should send many back to read one of her seven books (she considered herself an expert on George W. Bush, because 'like Mount Everest, he was there').
What a firecracker!
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