In person, Molly Ivins wasn’t quite larger than life, even if she was 6 feet tall. “It really does make a difference if you tower over your editor,” we hear her say in Janice Engel’s lively documentary, “Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins.” Her persona, though, sure was larger than life: brash, funny, smart, colorful. Newspaper columnists tend not to get documentaries made about them, but newspaper columnists tend not to be anything like Ivins. At the height of her popularity, in the late ’80s and ’90s, her column ran in upward of 400 newspapers; and she cut an even wider swathe, thanks to frequent television appearances and best-selling books like “Molly Ivins Can’t Say That, Can She?” (1993) and “You Got to Dance With Them What Brung You” (1998).
There’s no breed quite like the Texas liberal, and Ivins was the species at its most spectacular. Knowing you’re doomed to defeat, as any sensible Texas liberal does, can be wonderfully liberating. “Have a good time when you’re fighting for freedom,” Ivins once said. “We don’t always win, and it might be the only good time you have.” In that advice, shrewdness meets sad experience, with the wisdom it bespeaks is anything but sad.
“Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose,” or so Kris Kristofferson (of the Brownsville, Texas, Kristoffersons) would have us believe. Those words were most famously sung by Janis Joplin (of the Port Arthur, Texas, Joplins). Ivins was something like a cross between Kristofferson and Joplin: part good old boy (distaff division); part full-throated, tangle-haired star. Giving no quarter, she expected none in return.
More important, she clearly had so much fun doing it. Ivins was three parts comedian to two parts avenging angel. As ratios go, that one’s hard to beat. What’s the classic gunslinger line, “Smile when you say that, pardner”? When Ivins said something — when she wrote something, too — she didn’t just smile, she grinned.
The documentary would seem to labor under a severe handicap: its subject’s absence. Ivins died in 2007, of cancer. Only 62, she had packed an awful lot of living into those six decades. That presumed disadvantage turns out not to be an issue. When Ivins was alive, she was really, really alive; and there’s so much footage of her being interviewed and giving speeches that she is very much a living presence in the film. She lights it up, not unlike how she lit up the printed page.
Along with the many film clips of Ivins, we hear from family, friends, colleagues. There’s also the occasional here-for-name-value celebrity. Fellow Texan Dan Rather has something to add. MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow doesn’t.
Engel efficiently takes us along the path of Ivins’s life and career: growing up in pre-civil rights Houston, starting at The Houston Chronicle after college, moving on to The Minneapolis Tribune, then co-editing The Texas Observer (where she found her voice and hit her stride). The New York Times, Ivins’s next employer, did its best to quiet that voice — no one could silence it. Back in Texas, she found her true calling, as a columnist, first at The Dallas Times Herald, then The Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
So much of Ivins’s impact in the documentary has to do with her voice. It’s an aural marvel, the product of Texas drawl, years of smoking, and the self-awareness of a born performer. You might describe the specific timbre as honeyed jalapeno with whiskey notes (in life, her preferred beverages were beer and wine). Ivins wrote the way she spoke, and even the various Texas malefactors and nincompoops she pilloried found themselves liking her — or most of them did, anyway.
Among the many interesting things to be learned from “Raise Hell” is what a peculiar sort of Texan Ivins was. In that peculiarity, she was, perhaps, not unlike her great nemesis George W. Bush, whom she famously dubbed “Shrub.” Dubya was the son of a president and went to Phillips Andover and Yale. Ivins was the daughter of the president of Tenneco and went to Smith (as had her mother and grandmother) and studied for a year in Paris at the Institute of Political Science.
At odd moments, Ivins’s person peeks out from behind the persona: her unhappy childhood and adolescence, a fundamental loneliness and apartness made all the more acute by her gregariousness, a capacity for self-destructiveness of which the most obvious sign was her alcoholism (she did stop drinking several years before her death). What’s stimulating and fun about “Raise Hell” is quite stimulating and fun. But the more smitten you become with its subject — and it’s hard not to be — the more you feel there’s something missing or that what isn’t missing is yet too thin. “I didn’t fit in at Smith,” she says at one point, “but I didn’t fit in anywhere, so that wasn’t such an unusual experience.” There’s a sense in which Ivins doesn’t quite fit in the documentary either — or rather what fits in is great, but what doesn’t fit in (emotionally, personally) — gets left out, and that matters a lot.
RAISE HELL: THE LIFE & TIMES OF MOLLY IVINS
Directed by Janice Engel. Written by Engel and Monique Zavistovski. At Kendall Square. 93 minutes. Unrated (as PG-13: smokin’, drinkin’, cussin’, lots and lots of cussin’)
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.