Molly Ivins’s mind and tongue were so sharp, she even made C-SPAN entertaining.
The outspoken newspaper columnist and “professional Texan” is no longer with us, having succumbed to breast cancer in January 2007. But while Ivins was alive, her commentary was like catnip to viewers of the notoriously staid public-access network—even those prone to calling her an idiot. Her fans, who she called “beloveds,” still outnumbered her critics; her syndicated column once appeared in some 400 papers nationwide.
It’s about time someone made a film about Ivins’s life, which ended at the relatively young age of 62. Praise Jesus, that oversight has now been corrected with veteran filmmaker Janice Engel’s Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins. The 93-minute documentary draws on C-SPAN footage aplenty to memorialize the hip-shooting personality and civil-liberties crusader, chasing Ivins’s wit with a tasty soundtrack of Texas music legends such as Lightnin’ Hopkins, Doug Sahm, and the 13th Floor Elevators, among others.
A panel of prominent left-leaning Texans, including Dan Rather, Jim Hightower, Ann Richards’s daughter Cecile, and Ivins’s Texas Observer colleague Kaye Northcott revisit their favorite Molly stories; younger pundits like MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow praise her lasting influence. Siblings and a tight-knit inner circle of friends share more personal memories. Pretty much all of them agree that however much Ivins raised holy hell about issues she thought stank—a list that could stretch from Amarillo to the Rio Grande Valley—her heart always belonged to her home state.
“I don’t think she ever had any shame for Texas,” says Engel. “I think she loved Texas, warts and all.”
Ivins honed her scalpel prose on injustice, corruption, and political shenanigans, which Texas has in more abundance than oil wells. Of one hapless congressman, she once wrote “if his IQ slips any lower, we’ll have to water him twice a day.” The Governor’s Mansion, meanwhile, has “mostly been occupied by crooks, dorks, and the comatose.” And that was years before the gaffe-prone Rick Perry came along.
Ivins grew up well-to-do in Houston’s River Oaks, a bookish but big-boned girl who came of age in the Civil Rights era. She quickly learned, as she would later write, that “once you figure out they are lying to you about race, you start to question everything.” After college, the extreme chauvinism she endured at the Houston Chronicle and Minneapolis Star only sharpened the axe she ground against the conservative patriarchy; later she was let go from The New York Times for calling a communal chicken-killing festival in New Mexico a “gang-pluck.”
In between came heaven on earth, a gig covering the state Legislature for storied progressive rag the Texas Observer. “When most people would cover legislatures, [it was] really boring,” says Engel. “People would glaze over it in newspapers; Molly found an in by making it into high entertainment.”
She held fast to that same principle—“you can’t make this stuff up”—when she returned to Texas from New York, and a lucrative column for the Dallas Times Herald and later Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Books like 1992’s Molly Ivins Can’t Say That, Can She? got her on late-night TV, cracking up David Letterman and Conan O’Brien with outrageous legislature lore.
Raise Hell is not without its darker moments. Ivins struggled with alcoholism for years—the byproduct of her ability to easily drink most men under the table—and never quite got around to settling down and starting a family. “It didn’t make it into the film,” Engel says, “but she was ‘Aunt Mol’ to I can’t tell you how many people.”
Overall, though, Raise Hell is a laugh-out-loud portrait of a life lived liberally, with few, if any, regrets. Although Ivins never lived to see Donald Trump in the White House, so all bets are off.
“I think she would be dining out on He Who Shall Not Be Named for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but I think she would be horrified and railing for people to get out in the streets,” says Engel. “Molly’s big message was for us to do the heavy lifting.”
Raise Hell opens Aug. 30 at Landmark River Oaks Theater, 2009 W. Gray St. 713-524-2175. More info and tickets at landmarktheatres.com.