Every Act of Life
(USA, 90 min.)
Dir. Jeff Kaufman
Biographical documentaries can be bittersweet. Regardless of the subject’s prominence, the inevitably banal form of such docs can dwindle the viewing experience. And that’s partially the case with Jeff Kaufman’s Every Act of Life, which screened at the 2018 Inside Out Festival.
Kaufman’s new film offers a chronological portrait of a renowned playwright Terrence McNally’s personal life and career. Like most docs of its kind, Every Act of Life has its ups and downs, which are quite evenly spread out throughout the film.
The documentary opens with a whimsical sequence of New York’s landmarks and McNally’s beautiful apartment, accompanied with a theatrical score. “I love the theatre,” McNally narrates, while the camera exquisitely captures the writer’s daily routine. The opening credits roll with the numerous playwright’s pictures lurking in the background – a suave invitation into the extraordinary world of a theater legend.
Naturally, the doc instantaneously goes off to introduce McNally’s background, departing Manhattan for his hometown in Texas. It’s here that McNally first fell in love with theatre and started writing. It’s also here that he got beaten up for being gay, which he has never tried to hide. Through revisiting the playwright’s earlier years, Kaufman also sheds light on his family’s history with alcoholism, an illness that would later haunt McNally.
What follows is a lengthy and detailed chronicle of McNally’s captivating yet tough progression as a playwright in New York. The film offers a behind-the-scenes look at his breakthrough plays, such as The Ritz, Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, Kiss of the Spider Woman, and more. To deepen the examination of McNally’s work, Kaufman interviews his former actors and most beloved sweethearts of stage and screen – Angela Lansbury, F. Murray Abraham, Rita Moreno, etc. These interviews combined with McNally’s own rendition of his professional milestones illuminate both his career and the advancement of American theatre.
Kaufman almost manages to strike a balance between countless excerpts from McNally’s plays and celebrity accounts by incorporating his subject’s intimate history. The film lovingly scrutinizes McNally’s romantic adventures, including his affair with author of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Edward Albee, and his marriage to his beloved partner Thomas Joseph Kirdahy. While Kaufman’s exploration of his subject’s theatre career is quite straightforward, the insight into the playwright’s private life is nuanced and animated.
The film also aptly honours McNally’s gracious nature through detailing his activism. From writing the first positive, openly gay character in the history of Broadway to standing up for gay rights amidst the AIDS crisis, McNally has always seen his fight for social justice as an artistic responsibility rather than a choice.
To this day, McNally writes plays and gets irritated when people ask him about potential retirement. His self-criticism and perfectionism will speak to every artist, while his career path and determination is an inspiration to young playwrights.
Though well-executed, Every Act of Life bears the hardship of embracing every cliché of biographical documentary, including constant talking heads and a tiresome linear structure. But to be fair, Every Act of Life is one of the more charming documentaries of its sort. Theatre fans are also bound to enjoy this doc more than regular movie goers. Terrence McNally fills the air with humour, passion and love – for life and theatre. So if you haven’t already experienced McNally’s genius first hand, Every Act of Life will certainly lure you into buying a ticket to one of his Broadway shows.