The Global Peace Film Festival kicks off its 16th annual event at Maitland’s Enzian Theater on Tuesday, Sept. 18, with a screening of Every Act of Life, a documentary about renowned playwright Terrence McNally. Unlike its subject, this rather conventional portrait doesn’t create waves, but it is still an understandable choice for the festival – which emphasizes inclusivity and human rights – because of the film’s focus on artistic courage and LGBT issues.
“Nobody loves the theater as much as Terrence,” Nathan Lane says. And he’s just one of the famous actors who practically chew through the proscenium to praise McNally in this doc, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in April. We also hear from F. Murray Abraham, Christine Baranski, Edie Falco, Rita Moreno, Doris Roberts and Patrick Wilson. Even Meryl Streep and Bryan Cranston offer voiceovers. But the film is better when it doesn’t heap praise but instead offers a glimpse into McNally’s Texas upbringing and pioneering attitude toward his sexuality and that of his characters. And it’s particularly memorable when it departs briefly from a traditional, talking-heads tribute and allows Angela Lansbury, in the movie’s best interview, to discuss McNally’s alcoholism.
It’s not that McNally doesn’t deserve praise. After all, his nearly 60-year body of work includes plays such as Master Class, Love! Valour! Compassion! and Frankie and Johnnie in the Clair de Lune (and the film’s screenplay), and musicals such as Ragtime, Kiss of the Spider Woman and The Full Monty. But director Jeff Kaufman, who has considerable experience directing and producing documentaries, sometimes struggles to capture his subject. He often rushes through play after play and interview after interview in an all-consuming effort to recite a resume instead of unfolding a life. There is certainly a huge amount to pack in, and Every Act of Life doesn’t skimp on McNally’s career accomplishments. But it’s the little details that prove the most insightful: McNally’s anxiety, procrastination, tragic personal relationships and passion for punctuation. And those details are best conveyed when Kaufman lets the 79-year-old playwright speak for himself. Admittedly, McNally isn’t the most exciting interviewee, but the doc is more sincere – and less cloying – when we see only McNally and the camera.
“I love the theater,” McNally says. “It reinvents itself every night. I still get very excited when the curtain goes up. What great adventure!”
Every Act of Life is filled with these inspirational quotes, reminding us why we love the theater. (If you don’t love it, you probably won’t like this film.) But I was equally struck by what McNally has to say about personal identity and his decision to create wonderful, complex characters – many of whom just happen to be openly gay: “When people aren’t willing to look at the truth about who they are, I think it’s gonna corrode their souls, their hearts.”
Early in his career, John Steinbeck advised McNally to stick with novels and short stories. “Don’t write for the theater,” he told him. “It’ll break your heart.”
Instead, McNally’s writing broke ours.