×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘Every Act of Life’

As busy as ever at 79, playwright Terrence McNally looks back at his long career to date in Jeff Kaufman's admiring documentary.

Director:
Jeff Kaufman
With:
Terrence McNally, Christine Baranski, Audra McDonald, Nathan Lane, Peter McNally, Jack O’Brien, Rita Moreno, Paul Libin, Tom Kirdahy, F. Murray Abraham, Roberta Kaplan, Billy Porter, Micah Stock, Doris Roberts, Don Roos, Lynn Ahrens, Angela Lansbury, Dominic Cuskern, Edie Falco, Richard Thomas, Jon Robin Baitz, John Tillinger, John Slattery, Anthony Heald, Chita Rivera, John Kander, Tyne Daly, Joe Mantello, Lynne Meadow, John Glover, John Benjamin Hickey, Marin Mazzie, Stephen Flaherty, Larry Kramer, Lynne Meadow, Jack O’Brien, Patrick Wilson, Sheryl Kaller.

One hour 33 minutes

Few if any living playwrights have been as successful for as long as Terrence McNally. “Every Act of Life” provides a predictably starry, rather standard, but satisfying overview of a prodigious career that is still going full-steam as the writer nears his ninth decade. It may require posterity to deliver a film that really weighs McNally’s influence, strengths, and weaknesses as a dramatist; Jeff Kaufman’s feature is more of a biographical valentine, aimed squarely at fans already somewhat knowledgeable about the subject’s life, works, and times. It should play well wherever such aficionados can be found — which is to say, anywhere Broadway and gay theater have a loyal base.

Opening with footage of McNally receiving a Tony — one of four won so far — for “Master Class” in 1996, this straightforward bio then backtracks to the start of a strictly chronological hagiography. Our protagonist traces lifelong “feelings of not really approving or even liking my own work” to the “push-pull of childhood” in unsophisticated Corpus Christie, Texas, raised by unhappy, alcoholic parents. A high school English teacher encouraged his evident talent, which took him to Columbia U. and then the Big Apple. His first-ever boyfriend was none other than Edward Albee, his second actor and frequent collaborator Robert Drivas. Both of those men were professionally closeted, the relationships stormy and sozzled.

McNally’s Broadway debut (1964’s “And Things That Go Bump in the Night”) had all the earmarks of success — until the critics got to it. Nonetheless, its qualities were noted (including the then-daring presence of an “out” gay character), and a subsequent decade of adventuresome off-Broadway works laid path to his first smash: 1975’s “The Ritz,” a clever, manic farce audaciously set in a gay bathhouse. But another decade of relative inactivity (broken only by a second hit, the resolutely heterosexual two-hander “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune”) ensued before he found his mojo again. That occurred thanks largely to Angela Lansbury — who informed him he needed to stop drinking if he wanted to live, let alone fulfill his potential.

Since 1986 McNally has been remarkably prolific for someone of his stature, racking up a total of some three dozen plays, 10 books for musicals, and four opera librettos — not to mention a handful of movie and TV assignments. This tally had room for plenty of misfires, but they’ve been sandwiched between great successes: gay-themed seriocomedies “The Lisbon Traviata,” “Lips Together, Teeth Apart,” and “Love! Valour! Compassion!”; star vehicle “Master Class” (about Maria Callas); “It’s Only a Play,” a farce as widely popular as “The Ritz”; and major Broadway musicals including “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” “Ragtime,” and “The Full Monty.”

With so much to cover, “Every Act of Life” can only devote limited attention to individual works, skipping some entirely while delivering just a few behind-the-scenes insights or star anecdotes about others. (It’s particularly interesting to hear about specific writing processes, including the fact that McNally’s actors demanded saving rewrites on the initially dire “Lips,” or how “Love!” got whittled down from outrageously long early drafts.) There’s not a lot of explanation as to what these plays are for the benefit of those not already acquainted. While there’s discussion of the controversy surrounding 1998’s “Corpus Christi,” which riled conservatives by updating the life of Christ to a modern gay context, its triggering content isn’t spelled out.

There’s less sense of haste in the still-brisk but heartfelt accounts of McNally’s later serious relationships, including a somewhat ambiguous more-than-friendship with late fellow playwright Wendy Wasserstein, plus domestic partnerships with writer/AIDS research clinic founder Gary Bonasorte (who died at 45 in 2000) and stage producer Thomas Kirdahy, whom he married in 2010.

Seemingly beloved by everyone who ever worked with him (several actors credit him for launching their careers), McNally admits all past faults and claims “my work never gave me pleasure before the last couple of years.” Yet at the same time, belying the tortured-writer stereotype, he doesn’t seem a terribly complicated or conflicted individual. He has the personality one might expect for a talent so frequently “crowd-pleasing,” generally upbeat and sometimes sentimental. “Every Act of Life” is not a movie inclined to ponder whether what one critic termed McNally’s tendency toward “slick artifice, a surfeit of manner over matter” will lend staying power in the even-longer run, or whether he’ll become another populist playwright whose popularity dies with him.

Beyond those featured here — Nathan Lane, Rita Moreno, Chita Rivera, John Glover, et al. — a list of those additionally interviewed but left on the cutting-room floor should make for a rich menu of home-format extras. Documentarian Kaufman (“The State of Marriage,” “The Savoy King”) has assembled a tight package that is conventionally pro in all departments, making full use of the expected treasure trove of archival performance and other materials.

Film Review: 'Every Act of Life'

Reviewed online, San Francisco, June 23, 2018. (In Tribeca, Frameline, Outfest film festivals.) Running time: 93 MIN.

Production: (Documentary) A The Orchard release of a Floating World Pictures presentation in association with Lakeview Prods., Talu Prods. (International sales: The Film Collaborative, Los Angeles.) Producers: Jeff Kaufman, Marcia S. Ross. Executive producers: Jay Alix, Una Jackman, Suzi Dietz, Tom Kirdahy, Mark Lee, Ted Snowdon, Duffy Violante, Buddy Steves, Rowena Young.

Crew: Director, writer: Jeff Kaufman. Camera (color, HD): Jordan Black, Autumn Eakin, Anthony Lucido. Editor: Asher Bingham. Music: Laura Karpman, Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum.

With: Terrence McNally, Christine Baranski, Audra McDonald, Nathan Lane, Peter McNally, Jack O’Brien, Rita Moreno, Paul Libin, Tom Kirdahy, F. Murray Abraham, Roberta Kaplan, Billy Porter, Micah Stock, Doris Roberts, Don Roos, Lynn Ahrens, Angela Lansbury, Dominic Cuskern, Edie Falco, Richard Thomas, Jon Robin Baitz, John Tillinger, John Slattery, Anthony Heald, Chita Rivera, John Kander, Tyne Daly, Joe Mantello, Lynne Meadow, John Glover, John Benjamin Hickey, Marin Mazzie, Stephen Flaherty, Larry Kramer, Lynne Meadow, Jack O’Brien, Patrick Wilson, Sheryl Kaller.

More Film

  • Abigail Disney on Bob Iger

    Abigail Disney Calls Bob Iger's $65 Million Compensation 'Insane'

    Disney chairman-CEO Bob Iger’s total compensation for Disney’s fiscal 2018 was a whopping $65.6 million. Abigail Disney, the granddaughter of Disney co-founder Roy Disney, calls that sum “insane.”  While speaking at the Fast Company Impact Council, the filmmaker and philanthropist insisted that this level of corporate payout has a “corrosive effect on society.” Disney took [...]

  • 'Curse of La Llorona' Tops International

    'Curse of La Llorona' Tops International Box Office With $30 Million

    Warner Bros. and New Line’s “The Curse of La Llorona” led the way at the international box office, summoning $30 million when it opened in 71 foreign markets. The supernatural thriller collected $26.5 million in North America for a global start of $56.5 million. “La Llorona,” based on the Mexican folklore about the Weeping Woman, [...]

  • Box Office: 'Curse of La Llorona'

    Box Office: 'Curse of La Llorona' Wins Worst Easter Weekend in Over a Decade

    Warner Bros. and New Line’s “The Curse of La Llorona” ascended to the top of domestic box office charts, conjuring $26.5 million when it opened in 3,372 North American theaters. “La Llorona” is the latest horror movie to outperform expectations, further cementing the genre as one of the most reliable box office draws. Even so, [...]

  • FX's 'Snowfall' Panel TCA Winter Press

    John Singleton Hospitalized After Suffering Stroke

    UPDATED with statements from John Singleton’s family and FX Networks John Singleton, the Oscar nominated director and writer of “Boyz N’ the Hood,” has suffered a stroke. Sources confirm to Variety that Singleton checked himself into the hospital earlier this week after experiencing pain in his leg. The stroke has been characterized by doctors as [...]

  • 'Curse of La Llorona' Leads Slow

    'Curse of La Llorona' Leads Slow Easter Weekend at the Box Office

    New Line’s horror pic “The Curse of La Llorona” will summon a solid $25 million debut at the domestic box office, leading a quiet Easter weekend before Marvel’s “Avengers: Endgame” hits theaters on April 26. The James Wan-produced “La Llorona,” playing in 3,372 theaters, was a hit with hispanic audiences, who accounted for nearly 50% [...]

  • Jim Jarmusch in 'Carmine Street Guitars'

    Film Review: 'Carmine Street Guitars'

    “Carmine Street Guitars” is a one-of-a-kind documentary that exudes a gentle, homespun magic. It’s a no-fuss, 80-minute-long portrait of Rick Kelly, who builds and sells custom guitars out of a modest storefront on Carmine Street in New York’s Greenwich Village, and the film touches on obsessions that have been popping up, like fragrant weeds, in [...]

  • Missing Link Laika Studios

    ‘Missing Link’ Again Tops Studios’ TV Ad Spending

    In this week’s edition of the Variety Movie Commercial Tracker, powered by the TV ad measurement and attribution company iSpot.tv, Annapurna Pictures claims the top spot in spending for the second week in a row with “Missing Link.” Ads placed for the animated film had an estimated media value of $5.91 million through Sunday for [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content