Back when Texas government was considered entertainment, before they stopped the open whiskey parties in the Capitol hallways and food fights on the House floor, there was a columnist named Molly Ivins.
For 35 years in Austin, nine of them for the Star-Telegram, she made fun of everything in Austin that was crazy or crooked, meaning she never ran out of material.
Until her death in 2007 at 62, Ivins wrestled behind the scenes with her life, but never with her prose.
That’s the story between the laughs in “Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins,” a new Magnolia Pictures documentary showing this weekend at Magnolia at the Modern in Fort Worth and at theaters nearby in Grapevine and Dallas.
It’s also a story of the wilder, wide-open Austin of last century, when a 25-year-old Ivins took her own six-pack to a job interview as co-editor of the liberal Texas Observer political report and stood her ground above the macho Capitol good-ol’-boy crowd, mostly after drinking both Republicans and Democrats under the table.
I could go on. But I’ll just quote Molly:
▪ When a Dallas congressman said ending school desegregation might help ease a gasoline shortage: “If his IQ slips any lower, we’ll have to water him twice a day.”
▪ In a 2000 Star-Telegram column: “Our very own dreaded Legislature is almost upon us. Jan. 9 and they’ll all be here, leaving many a village without its idiot.”
▪ In a 2002 Star-Telegram column: “Naturally, when it comes to voting, we in Texas are accustomed to discerning that fine hair’s-breadth worth of difference that makes one hopeless dipstick slightly less awful than the other. But it does raise the question: Why bother?”
▪ To TV host Bill Moyers in 2003: “I think the whole country’s been turned into Texas. And Texas has always been the national laboratory for bad government. I mean, if you want to see a bad idea tried, we’ve tried it.”
▪ To TV host David Letterman as a Star-Telegram columnist: “They do polls every year to find out who’s the best-liked or more hated columnist in the area. I’m always both.”
Ivins poked fun at Bush, Perry
She wrote about President George W. “Shrub” Bush and Gov. Rick “Governor Goodhair” Perry, and both laughed, back before the humorless drips took over in both parties and tamped down all the fun.
Yes, she was an Austin liberal, meaning she was liberal even by liberal standards.
But most of her earlier columns stuck up for bipartisan causes: ethics, transparency, accountability — the kind of things Austin folks hate talking about.
“Raise Hell” makes the point that in the beginning, Ivins consistently stuck up for the underdog and the little people, not just the liberal people.
Later, she wrote more about Bush and less about Texas, and more recent readers will remember her as an acerbic critic of the White House rather than as a funny Texas satirist.
But that’s part of her story, too, along with the drinking and the recurring breast cancer and chemotherapy.
‘A loving ... fawning portrait,’ The New York Times says
So far, the movie is a mild success for a documentary. It opened in a limited run at 19 theaters and earned $141,072 before going national this week.
In The New York Times, where she wrote for six years despite the Times’ famous heavy-handed editing, critic Manohla Dargis called the movie a “loving, at times fawning portrait” but longed for a more critical view: “Ivins can seem like a blast, but she also seems awfully lonely and sometimes more sad than mad.”
At RogerEbert.com, Dallas product Matt Zoller Seitz found more criticism: “We learn about how wantonly cruel she could be towards her targets. ... What emerges strongly from ‘Raise Hell’ is a sense that, despite her awesome storytelling gifts and fearless personality, Ivins was ultimately a mystery to herself.”
In downtown Fort Worth, the movie opened last week to only a few stragglers in the big posh loungers at the fancy AMC Palace movie theater.
But it played to packed weekend houses at the simpler museum theater in the Cultural District, Magnolia at the Modern.
Next door, the crowds are lining up at the Kimbell for the Claude Monet exhibit. But the barns across the street still smell a little bit like the quarterhorse and miniature horse show last week.
It’s the kind of place Molly would like.