Teri Orr: Raise more hell!
It is a rare Sundance premiere that starts with a cheer from the audience and a pledge to “Raise Hell” with uplifted arms and “hook ‘em horns” fingers. But then that audience knew why they were in the room — to celebrate the colorful life of Texas columnist/raconteur — Molly Ivins.
In her introduction to the film, Director Janice Engel made fun of herself as a New York east side Jew who tried to authentically say “all you all” in a sentence. She spoke of her six years working on the project and how much she came to love, respect and miss Molly.
The film shows Molly’s privileged youth — provided by her Houston oil businessman father — allowed her to study in France, attend Columbia and walk away from the patriarchy of the South — for awhile. She was 6 feet tall at 12 years old. Her brother said his other sister was always told she was pretty and Molly was always told she was smart. Therefore one sister grew up thinking she was not smart and the other not pretty.
I spent my girlhood as a Clydesdale among thoroughbreds, Molly said.
Her father was known as The Admiral and expected the house to run by his rule. I’ve always had trouble with male authority figures because my father was such a martinet, said Molly.
From Dan Rather to Rachel Maddow and a whole lot of other illustrious Texans and friends, there were lots of stories about Molly from her admirers.
Molly was hired in the ’70s by the New York Times for her colorful style and strong writing skills, and the film shows how those very traits also worked against her. She worked barefoot and used those trademark, Texan, Molly-modified colorful expressions. Early on she was given the weighty assignment of covering the funeral of Elvis Presley — a rather confusing story for the staid old gray lady (as the Times was known). She did that thing only a rare reporter/writer can create — she painted word portraits — of the fans, beat cops and even of the scene at the service where the “plump corpse” of Elvis was laid out in his casket.
She covered a story about a chicken ranch in New Mexico during those Times days and she chronicled the details of the life and slaughter of chickens. She called it a gang pluck. Famed stuffy editor/publisher Abe Rosenthal said she had wanted the readers to think of the F word. And she admitted … there’s no fooling you, Abe. He dismissed her from New York to the outpost of Denver where she became the Times bureau chief — overseeing stories and covering stories herself in nine states — from Mormons, Indian tribal courts, grasshopper plagues, ski bums, and the joys of Butte, Montana.
Then the Dallas paper called her home — they had an opening and wanted Molly to be Molly.
“Home,” she said, “is where you understand the sons of bitches.” But when the paper sold there was an offer from Austin. In a town that proclaims — “Keep Austin Weird” — she fit right in.
At the height of her popularity, 400 newspapers carried her column. She was nominated twice for the Pulitzer Prize.
Anne Lamott appears in the film to talk about the chapter where her friends, including former Texas governor Ann Richards — herself decades sober — held an intervention. And Molly — now fighting breast cancer — started fighting her other demons. Lamott says I think it was such a relief for her to become sober…
Being an alcoholic is often a professional hazard of being a journalist. You dig so close to crisis and see horrors and work against deadlines. The intense pressure, the need to scoop the competition to get it right, makes you crave camaraderie in a can … or a glass or a glass bottle.
During the credits, the soundtrack playing, we were all clapping and stomping our feet on the wooden floor in the makeshift theater. Then guests headed over to the Grub Steak where the beer and beef were served up. The conversations sparked by the hosts — the Texas chapter of the ACLU (with the Utah ACLU also in spirited attendance) were all perfectly in keeping with Ivins’ spirit. (The Texas chapter was one of the beneficiaries of her estate.)
Molly understood the Bill Of Rights was a fragile working document.
“Polarizing people is a good way to win an election and a good way to wreck a country,” Molly had said.
We self-selected tables and I found myself not knowing a soul. But in the spirit of Molly’s spirit, before long we were laughing and telling journalistic tales of our own including three women who were journalists — from New York to Houston. One of the funders of the film was there — and some guys who were great fun — I never did learn their professions. The New York woman writer told a story on herself. She said a Texan friend had asked another if she had arrived yet at a party. The man answered — Is anybody in the room arguing yet? No? Then she hasn’t arrived.
Over in a far corner was a table of mostly women — where executive producer Katy Bettner was sparking conversations. A lifelong Texan (McKinney) with a stint at BYU and executive producer of last year’s doc hit — “Dark Money” — just nominated for an Oscar — Katy is no occasional visitor to Utah. She and Amy Redford have just started their own company — BetRed Productions — based from their respective perches at Sundance Resort.
Honestly, I don’t know who suggested I read Molly Ivins and study her reporting style but I do know it was in the ’80s when I was editor of this paper. I was in my late 30s with no journalism degree — in fact, no degree at all. Molly was fearless, funny and so damn readable. And inspiring.
Molly always signed her books with Raise more hell. It seems like a worthy suggestion to take to heart this final Sundance Sunday in the Park…
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the director of the Park City Institute, which provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.
“Even the dogs were celebrating the reemergence of the sun.”