Saturday, November 3, 2018

EVERY ACT OF LIFE: Jeff Kaufman's bio-doc of playwright Terrence McNally hits home video

Even if you are not a super-fan of the well-known and hugely prolific playwright Terrence McNally, I suspect that, if you're a legitimate-theater lover, you'll be fascinated and very probably transported by EVERY ACT OF LIFE, the new documentary about the man's life, loves and career.

As written, directed and produced by Jeff Kaufman, this biographical documentary is chock full of interesting details, facts and opinions, often offered up by McNally himself, who seems clearly delighted to be the subject of this film -- which is hagiography, yes, but is so damned entertaining that I don't think you'll much mind at all.

Mr. Kaufman has whipped together quite a soufflé of McNally's history (born in Florida but mostly raised in Corpus Christi, Texas), love affairs, activism (he was gay and "out" from an early adult age and never seems to have regretted this choice -- the out part, I mean, not the gay), but especially concentrates on the playwright's career and work.

This is wise choice because, for theater fans, it allows us to meet and hear from a huge range of actors and other theater, movie and television folk who've appeared in, produced or been somehow involved in the playwright's work down the decades. These include the fabulous Nathan Lane (shown below, whose appearances here as both actor and interviewee are priceless), Rita Moreno, F. Murray Abraham, Christine Baranski and oodles more, plus Manhattan Theater Club's Lynne Meadow (the MTC's somewhat spineless treatment and cave-in-to-censorship regarding McNally's infamous and perhaps unfairly treated Corpus Christi play is rather glossed over here).

We're also made privy to McNally's various love relationships -- from the early days of his affair with the very closeted and very successful playwright Edward Albee (shown below, right, with a quite adorable and young McNally) right up to and including his present husband. Their marriage took place once the LGBT community had been afforded that legal right. Along the way, two of the playwright's earlier partners succumbed to AIDS.

That loss, along with the general and longstanding inequality offered to America's gay population, was responsible for much of McNally's activism, some of which we see here, and which also, and more important for an artist, led to so much of the themes and ideas about outsiders, alternative life styles and sexualities and the constant need to persevere that are present in his work.

The filmmaker and playwright also collaborate to bring us some info about McNally's mid-life addictions (mostly to alcohol it would seem) and how he handled this. There's a wonderful anecdote about a party and the reactions of two guests -- Lauren Bacall and Angela Lansbury -- to Mr. McNally's party faux pas. Ms Lansbury tells us her version herself, and she is quite lovely and compassionate, as she does this.

For all we learn about the playwright's love and work and problems and accomplishments, however, and as much as McNally seems willing to open up and charm and amuse us, there remains a distinct lack of real depth to the documentary. (This lack has long made TrustMovies a bit wary of McNally's oeuvre itself. Much of it I've found fun and moving over the years, but little of it has really stuck with me.) We hear all these wonderful things being said about our hero but almost nothing that's remotely negative. (We do learn what a stickler he is for actors sticking to the script and even to the punctuation on the page; no improvisation, please! And there's a very interesting anecdote regarding the initial problems with his script for Lips Together, Teeth Apart, and how certain actors were able to get him to see and then change these.)

Still, the movie means to be a celebration -- and it is -- with the energy and good will on display here carrying audiences easily along. McNally has lived such a lengthy and interesting life (he turns 80 years old today, actually: Happy Birthday, Mr. McNally!) and has rubbed shoulders (and other bodily parts) with so many talented and beautiful personalities that Every Act of Life could get by on this information alone. One major surprise here comes as we learn about the affair he evidently had with a successful female playwright but kept this knowledge from the gay community because -- as I understood it, at least -- of its then politically incorrect stance. (I have often felt that the "B" in our GLBT acronym needs to be much better understood and accepted. It's what connects us rather solidly to the straight community and helps us share in ways that have barely been explored, either scientifically or artistically.)

From The Orchard and running a swift and entertaining 92 minutes, the documentary, after a slew of popular festival appearances, hits home video this coming Tuesday, November 6, digitally and on VOD.

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