Run time: 1 hour 33 minutes
Stars: Molly Ivins, Paul Krugman, Anne Lamott, Rachel Maddow, Dan Rather
Director: Janice Engel
As the tightly edited documentary Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins dramatically demonstrates, Molly Ivins, arguably the funniest political writer of her time — she died of cancer at 62 in 2007 — fulfilled her ambition: “to live out loud.” The daughter of rich Texas oilman James “General Jim” Ivins, she stood out early: By age 12, she was a 6-foot-tall bookworm, forever studying in her backyard treehouse, and in an era of rigid segregation, she scandalized her daddy by bringing a black classmate home to swim in their pool.
Stints in France, Scripps College, Smith College and the Columbia School of Journalism failed to make her the ideal demure belle her society wanted her to be. She was leftist-libertarian to the point of rudeness (especially after two bottles of wine a day), offending everyone from Nancy Pelosi, whom she drunkenly advised to take speech lessons to fix her strident voice, to Dan Quayle, of whom she opined, “Honestly, if you put that man's brain in a bumblebee, it would fly backwards."
Her attitude was, “I drive a pickup truck. I drink beer. I cuss. I hunt. I'm a liberal. So what?"
She rebelled against any authority's attempt to tame her. Defying women reporters’ usual fate — in the women's pages, which she called “the snake pit,” writing about “food, fluff and fashion for the rest of your natural days,” as she put it — she became the first female crime reporter in Minneapolis (where the police department named its mascot pig after her) and a star at the Texas Observer.
For entertainment news, advice and more, get AARP’s monthly Lifestyle newsletter.
When the New York Times recruited her, she clashed with her talented, tyrannically irritable, tin-eared boss, Abe Rosenthal. “I wrote that a fella had a beer gut that belonged in the Smithsonian,” she complained. “Turned up the next day in the New York Times as ‘a man with a protuberant abdomen,’ which I felt did not have the same ring.” When she wrote about someone who “squawked like a $2 fiddle,” it was changed to “an inexpensive musical instrument.” When she called a chicken-themed festival a “gang-pluck,” Rosenthal hit the ceiling.
But Ivins just kept rising — she never saw a glass ceiling she didn't want to shatter. She left the Times for more freedom at the Dallas Times Herald and was syndicated in about 400 papers (though some only bought the column in order to keep her more objectionable opinions out of print in their towns). She got Pulitzer Prize nominations, wrote best-sellers like Molly Ivins Can't Say That, Can She?, and made good money bringing down the house on lecture tours. The film captures her crackling wit: Noting that five out of seven Texas House speakers had been indicted, she added, “Actually, there was one guy in there who was not indicted, he was shot to death by his wife. Although she was indicted, she was not convicted, because in Texas we recognize public service when we see it."
But the film takes you past Ivins’ brassy public persona. Close friends reveal the vulnerable, sometimes lonely woman beneath, whose parents assured her she was unattractive, who never married after her college boyfriend died, regretted not having children, and was terrified that if she found a man he'd control her and if she quit drinking she'd stop being funny. She didn't grasp that someone who can drink everybody under the table is more at risk from alcohol than most, not less. Even after her 1999 cancer diagnosis, she kept smoking and drinking to excess, doubtless shortening her life, and causing mortifying binge-drunk behavior until she finally got sober in her last few years.
The film features practically no conservative voices balancing its many liberal ones, but it's significant that after she died, even the most frequent victim of her barbed tongue, George W. Bush, said, “Her quick wit and commitment will be missed.” Raise Hell will probably make lots of people miss her way more.
AARP critic Tim Appelo was Amazon’s entertainment editor and a critic for The Nation, Hollywood Reporter, EW, People, MTV, LA Weekly, New York Times, and Los Angeles Times.