Every Act of Life


The play’s the thing.

(2018) Documentary (The Orchard) Terrance McNally, Don Roos, Nathan Lane, Peter McNally, Christine Baranski, Chita Rivera, Richard Thomas, Angela Lansbury, F. Murray Abraham, John Slattery, Tyne Daly, Rita Moreno, John Kander, Anthony Heald, Lynn Ahrens, Jon Robin Baitz, Audra McDonald, John Benjamin Hickey, John Glover, Edie Falco. Directed by Jeff Kaufman

 

Terrance McNally is without question one of the most important playwrights of the late 20th century and on into the 21st century. Even now, pushing 80, he remains a vital creative force. He was one of the first Broadway writers to put openly gay characters in his plays; he was also among the first to come out himself.

This documentary is an attempt to capture the life of McNally, from his beginnings in Corpus Christi, Texas where he was hopelessly bullied, to Columbia University where he essentially majored in Broadway, Eventually he took an interest in writing stage plays instead of novels (which under his beloved English teacher in Corpus Christi Mrs. Maurine McElroy who encouraged him when both his alcoholic parents did not). He took up clandestine boyfriend Edward Albee whose career was just starting to take off at the time; McNally, on the other hand, was struggling especially when his first work was roundly panned by the critics.

Since then, McNally has written such gems as Frankie and Johnnie in the Claire de Lune, The Ritz, Master Class, Lips Together Teeth Apart, and the musical version of Kiss of the Spider Woman. He has won four Tony Awards and countless other honors. Jeff Kaufman rounds up a battalion of his friends to talk about the various facets of his personality and the highlights of his career. Broadway greats like Lan, Abraham, Lansbury, Roberts and Glover have all had their careers positively impacted by McNally and they are generous in their praise of the writer.

The film is a little bit over-fawning, rarely admitting to any warts or disfigurements, although they mention his bout with alcoholism which Lansbury apparently talked him down from. He has had a fairly large and diverse group of boyfriends, ending up with current husband Tom Kirdahy with whom he has a stable relationship so far as can be seen. Still, while some of the relationships get some coverage, others are almost mentioned in passing.

We hear about how generous he is, how insecure he is about his own work but we don’t really dive deep into the work itself. It feels at times we’re just getting a greatest hits version of his plays and the meaning of them and what they mean to others gets little interest from the filmmakers. I would have liked to see more analysis and less anecdotes but in the whole, this feels more like a group of friends gossiping rather than a truly academic study of McNally’s work. Frankly, this really will only appeal to those who live and breathe Broadway and kind of ignores everyone else.

REASONS TO GO: A very informative film for those unfamiliar with McNally. McNally’s gayness is emphasized, something a lot of films are afraid to do even now.
REASONS TO STAY: There are too many talking heads. There’s also a little bit too much hero-worship going on.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content as well as profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie made its world premiere at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/11/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wrestling With Angels
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Life Feels Good

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Carol Channing: Larger Than Life


Life is a musical number when you're Carol Channing

Life is a musical number when you’re Carol Channing

(2012) Documentary (EntertainmentOne) Carol Channing, Harry Kullijian, Lily Tomlin, Chita Rivera, Barbara Walters, Tyne Daly, Debbie Reynolds, Phyllis Diller, Loni Anderson, Bruce Vilanch, JoAnne Worley, Rich Little, Angela Lansbury, Bob Mackie, Tommy Tune, Tippi Hedren. Directed by Dori Berenstein

There are names and then there are Names. A lot of younger people aren’t that familiar with the name of Carol Channing but to those of my generation and before, she is virtually synonymous with Broadway. She originated the roles of Lorelei Lee in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and more notably, Dolly Levi in “Hello, Devi.” In both cases her signature roles were handed off to other actresses for the film versions, Marilyn Monroe for the former, Barbra Streisand for the latter.

These days she is pretty much retired from the stage although she does make appearances from time to time; for example she does a show number at the Kennedy Center Honors with Chita Rivera and Angela Lansbury (which begs the question why hasn’t she gotten one yet) and a number from “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” for a benefit.

Still, she’s recognized as the Ambassador of the Great White Way; while she’s taking a stroll pointing out the various theaters she’s been onstage in, she is seen by members of the chorus line of “Next to Normal” out taking a break between performances and is shown the reverence and love that those who love Broadway understand that she deserves.

Channing (who was 90 when this was filmed – she’s 91 now) is an ebullient force of nature, one who tells stories with genuine wit and warmth and has lots of stories to tell (such as of her first screen kiss from none other than Clint Eastwood). She’s one of those people you can’t help but like after spending just five minutes with her, and that personality shows through here.

There was a lot about her I didn’t know – about her support for gay rights causes and for other liberal touchstone causes. She has been a tireless worker in helping young actors survive the often brutal financial realities of life as a struggling actor, and for the furtherance of theatrical preservation. The more you see here, the more you like and respect her.

She hasn’t always had it easy. Not much is said about her marriage to her third husband of 42 years other than that the marriage ended abruptly and but before the divorce could become final her ex passed away. There have been allegations that it was a loveless marriage in other sources, but none of that is discussed here. Instead, the focus is on her fourth marriage to Kullijian, whom she met at Aptos Middle School in the San Francisco Bay Area and who turned out to be the love of her life, although sadly he passed away one day shy of his 92nd birthday in December 2011. However it’s obvious that they have an easy familiarity that comes from time and simpatico.

This is less of a documentary than a tribute; Berenstein really doesn’t linger too much on the unpleasant aspects of Channing’s life and rarely asks insightful questions. Not that a Mike Wallace-like approach would have been preferable but a look at the person behind the persona would have been welcome.

I still liked the movie a great deal however and wound up really falling in love with the subject a little. She may not be your cup of tea in terms of her life on Broadway, but nonetheless she’s great fun to spend an hour or so with. “Always leave ’em wanting more” is an old show business saying and it’s very true here – I wanted to spend more time with Carol Channing after the movie was done. I just wanted to get to know her better than the filmmakers allowed me to.

WHY RENT THIS: Gives you a glimpse into an amazing woman who’s had an incredible career.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Focuses overly much on “Hello, Dolly” and not enough on maybe her thoughts about certain aspects of her life.

FAMILY VALUES: Nothing here your kids haven’t heard or seen before. There is some smoking and a few mildly bad words here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Channing appeared on Nixon’s enemies list, which she later claimed as “the highest honor of her career.”

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The DVD is packed with ’em, including a Barbara Walters interview, a look at the opening night of “Hello Dolly” and much more.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $22,740 on an unknown production budget; probably lost money.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ahead of Time

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Desert Flower