Molly Ivins Raises Hell

Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins (2019)
Directed by Januce Engel
Magnolia Pictures, 93 minutes, Not-rated (some coarse language)

Lordy, how we could use Molly Ivins right now. If you’ve ever read or heard her, you know what I mean. If you’ve not, by all means check out Raise Hell. Alas, Ivins died of breast cancer in 2007, when she was just 62. One of the many talking heads in this documentary is Rachel Maddow, who acknowledges Ivins as an inspiration. Maddow has Ivins’ sharp political instincts, but if she ever unleashed Ivins-like one-liners on MSNBC, she’d be out on her ear.

Molly Ivins was big in all ways a person can be big. She was 6’ tall but seemed even larger, as she was husky as well. She wore a size-12 shoe, had flaming red hair, a big heart, and an even bigger laugh. She graduated from Smith, where she didn’t–by her own admission–fit in. That didn’t bother her; as she often quipped, she never fit in anywhere. That was close to being true. She had a tyrannical alcoholic father with whom she battled, and she locked horns with editors of publications such as the Minneapolis Tribune, the New York Times, and the Fort Worth Star-Telegraph. As a syndicated columnist, some of her op-ed pieces failed to run because they were deemed too controversial. This was especially so when she told Americans that they were falling prey to fear and foolishness in the wake of 9/11. The public eventually caught up with Ivins, but it a lot longer.

I was lucky enough to meet Ivins in 1993 when she came back to Smith to give a talk. At the time, I had a very large class at Smith of about 125 students to whom I assigned Molly Ivins Can’t Say That, Can She? Ivins was surprised by the number of students asking her to inscribe their book and roared out, “Who’s the summabitch responsible for all these books?” When I admitted that I was that “summabitch,” she laughed and said, “God bless your pointed heart,” and gave me a huge bear hug. All 5’5” of me disappeared! There’s a hysterical photo of the two of us somewhere in the Smith archives, one whose scale is roughly that of Gandalf towering over Bilbo Baggins.

The answer to whether or not Molly Ivins could “say that” is yes. As she put it in an early clip in the film, “I’m a Texan. I drink. I cuss. I drive a pickup truck. I fuck. I’m a liberal. Get over it.” She had an odd relationship with George W. Bush, whom she called “Shrub.” She mercilessly lampooned him, yet the two liked each other. (When she learned he was studying Spanish she quipped, “Oh good; he’ll be bi-ignorant.”) In another candid moment she said Bush was “shaped by three intertwining strands of Texas culture… religiosity, anti-intellectualism, and machismo.” But no one ever suffered deeper cuts from her rapier wit than Texas lawmakers: “As they say around the Texas Legislature, if you can’t drink their whiskey, screw their women, take their money, and vote against ‘em anyway, you don’t belong in office.”

Ivins never apologized for being liberal. She had the moxie to say that in journalism, “there is no such thing as objectivity…. So my solution has been to let my readers know where I stand. They can take that with a grain of salt or a pound of salt, depending upon their preference.”

Behind the humor lay the soul of a political warrior. Ivins had no patience with bullies, liars, or hucksters. She held special ire for powerful people who took advantage of the poor. Back in the 1980s she warned about how the powerful used fear of immigrants to divert attention from their own misdeeds. In one of her more trenchant observations Ivins spoke of how words like “socialist” and “communist” were mere diversions. In her mind, the political spectrum in the United States was “top to bottom, not left to right.”

Director Janice Engel admires Ivins, but she doesn’t sugarcoat her. She tells of Ivins’ gawky childhood, of her domineering father, of Molly’s contrarian orneriness, and her struggles with alcoholism. She also takes us through her ultimately unsuccessful battle against breast cancer. Among Ivins’ most poignant pearls was when she told women not to send her get-well cards; instead she advised, “Go. Get. The. Damn. Mammogram. Done.”  

Lots of people appear on screen to speak of Ivins, including Anne Lamott, Dan Rather, Jim Hightower, Paul Krugman, Victor Navaski, Molly’s sister Sara, and the late Ann Richards, who was Molly’s friend long before she was governor of Texas. The view they give us of Ivins can best be summed by the phrase, “It’s complicated.” Engel deserves credit for shying away from hagiography. She also deserves our gratitude for hiring a musical team that cobbled together a rich soundtrack that draws upon Willie Nelson, Bonnie Raitt, honky-tonk, jazz, and period music rather than the bland and neutral score that we encounter in far too many documentaries.

Objectively speaking, my four-star rating may be a tad too high. In places the tone is flatter than it should be, and overall the documentary lacks the zing of the 2011 play Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins,” which relies far more on her sparkling words. (Kathleen Turner once played Ivins in Ret Hot Patriot.) But I shall pull a page from Ivins, admit my subjectivity, and give the film four stars. After all, Ivins once said, “There’s nothing you can do about being born liberal–fish gotta swim and hearts gotta bleed.”

Rob Weir

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