Every Act Of Life

****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Terrence McNally and Edward Albee, c 1965 from Every Act Of Life
"Jeff Kaufman's documentary explores the intersection of the personal, the political and the artistic with a focus on understanding what the playwright always advanced as the most important of human endeavours: communication." | Photo: Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival

Too often we wait until the great artistic talents are dead before we celebrate their work. Terrence McNally is 79, still working, still sharp, and it's hard to think of a playwright more deserving not just of a documentary tribute like this but of the chance to see it. A passionate man yet riddled with self doubt, he never quite seems to have accepted that he's one of the greats - there's a part of him that believes he's still only just getting away with it. Perhaps, this film suggests, that's one of the things that drives him. He has always been drawn to walk on the edge, both in his art and in his life, if only because he found it impossible to do anything else.

McNally grew up in Texas, where consensual sex between men was illegal until 2003. Yet in the late Sixties, when most gay men in the US lived clandestine lives, he was putting gay romance and erotic passion on the stage. His unrelenting honesty and drive for authenticity were what drew in audiences and, in time, won him critical acclaim, but they also made his personal life difficult, with the men he fell for fearful that being open about their relationships could end their careers. In turn, the tensions this created contributed to the insight into relationship dynamics at the heart of his most celebrated works.

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Jeff Kaufman's documentary explores the intersection of the personal, the political and the artistic with a focus on understanding what the playwright always advanced as the most important of human endeavours: communication. It briefly on his childhood experiences with alcoholic parents which would be reflected in his choice of partners and his own behaviour later in life; on the influence of high school English teacher Maurine McElroy and friends like Angela Lansbury, who intervened at critical times to encourage him to value both himself and his talent. It also explores key themes in his work and looks at the influence it had on wider society.

McNally himself is interviewed at length, with segments of this appearing throughout the film and substantiating the central narrative. There are also extensive contributions from people who have known and worked with him, including such luminaries as F Murray Abraham, Zoe Caldwell and Tyne Daly. For all that this may be a film, it's suffused with the spirit of the theatre; and whilst it may at times get a touch too sentimental, it's still effective in communicating the allure of the stage - its intimacy, its immediacy, even the unpredictability of the audience. McNally may no longer have the damaging relationship with alcohol that he once did, but he admits that he's unable to give the theatre up.

Though McNally's is a life that has seen its share of tragedy, his warm humour and love of life shine through in this endearing tribute. It doesn't offer much in the way of deep insight that those with an interest in his work won't have come across before, but it's a great introductory piece for those new to this area of theatre, and a pleasing chance for others to reflect on one of its greatest talents.

Reviewed on: 03 Nov 2018
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Every Act Of Life packshot
A portrait of four-time Tony-winning playwright Terrence McNally’s ground-breaking, six-decade career in the theatre, fight for LGBTQ rights, and triumph over addiction.

Festivals:

Tribeca 2018

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