Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Holland Taylor as Gov. Ann Richards

Credit: Ave Bonar
Holland Taylor as Gov. Ann Richards — An Epic Performance Now Preserved on BroadwayHD.  See What Real Acting Is all About!  
by Denis Ferrara

“YOU KNOW,
I am usually cast as these rather brittle, sharp-tongued sophisticated women, which has always surprised me, because I sure don’t see myself like that.  If I am, I’m so brittle and sharp-tongued my friends are afraid to disabuse me!  It was such a relief to play a woman as warm and expansive as Ann Richards.”

That’s what Holland Taylor told me the day after the triumphant screening of her one-woman stage play “Ann.”

This happened at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center on June 14th. (Part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center.)
Holland Taylor as Ann Richards in her one-woman stage play “Ann.”
Somehow, I’d missed “Ann” when it played Texas, Chicago, Washington, D.C. and most shamefully — in terms of my not seeing it — The Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center, in 2013.  I can’t imagine or recall why this happened. 

But, “Ann” has been put on film, beautifully, produced by Spoon Films; David Wolfson’s company in Austin. Peter Simonite, Director of Photography. Now it lives forever on the streaming service BroadwayHD. 
I met Holland Taylor in the early 1980’s. She was a friend of Liz Smith.  I saw her onstage way back in the in “Breakfast with Les and Bess” and “The Cocktail Hour” days.  I knew her — of course! — from TV’s “Bosom Buddies” from 39 films and even more television (a 1999 Emmy for “The Practice.”)  I saw her last on Broadway in “The Front Page” and loved her recently  as Michelle Dockery’s larcenous, glamorous grandmother in several episodes of “Good Behavior.”  We were friends, if not exactly “bosom buddies” connected mainly by Miss Smith.  I’d ridden in cars with Holland though I’d never had the experience of being driven anywhere by her.  To me, she was just ... too Holland to do anything as prosaic as drive a car.  Which is why I love her story of how the idea of “Ann” came to her. 

She was driving along on a highway, and just suddenly pulled over and had a vision, an epiphany.  It was the year Ann Richards, who had one wildly famous term as governor of Texas, died.  Holland had been thinking about doing something about Ann: “ A biopic or a book, or, if could paint,  a portrait” she later told Newsweek.
But no, she’d do a play.  She’d write a play!   The idea of the Holland I knew, driving a car to the side of the road, struck me as a little hilarious — see, even I thought she was much more like  many of her characters, rather than the sensitive, vulnerable person I’d seen, dined with, confided in at times.  That “other” Holland would say, “Stop, Jeeves” to her chauffeur or turn to an assistant and bark, “I have an ... idea.  Take this down!” (Holland’s opening quote is so true, about the power and restriction of a strong image — it can even affect those who know you pretty well!)

Holland Taylor, the real woman plunged herself into years to writing, pouring over videos and reams of archival material, searching  for every scrap of information about Ann Richards, interviewing hundreds of friends family and acquaintances, and using a lot of her own money.

Holland didn’t know Ann Richards.  They met only once, in 2004, with Liz Smith. Her mourning, as it were, was less for the woman, and more for what that woman stood for — it was mourning for the country. (To many people, that palpable melancholy is stronger today some 12 years after Richards’ death.)  “She comforted us, but more vitally, she rallied our spirits,” says Holland.  The actress adds, “Listen, I was also glad to have a purpose and a goal beyond my own concerns.  And now, after more than a decade, I feel rather parental toward it.”

The result, which I finally saw last week, is nothing short of an exercise in witchcraft. I guess that’s what really good acting is.  Sure, she wears Ann Richards’ famous white sculptured hairstyle, and she moves and gestures much like the legend of forthright feistiness, feminism and fairness.  But it’s more.  It is an immersion so complete, so loving, so powerful and amusing, that I had to keep reminding myself, “It’s really Holland Taylor!  Denis, you just saw her when you came in.  You spoke to her.  Get a grip!”

Holland Taylor and Cecile Richards
Holland Taylor and Director Benjamin Endsley Klein
I also felt, because of how evocatively “Ann” was filmed — onstage in Austin, I believe — that I was actually watching it onstage.  Excitedly chatting with a stranger when the lights came up — before a Q & A with Holland and Ann’s daughter, the fabulous and formidable Cecile Richards — I said, “This has been one of the greatest nights in the theater I’ve ever had!”  The stranger said gently, “It wasn’t really theater.”  But I was on a roll:  “If this isn’t theater, what the hell is?!”  This person, who sidled away gingerly, will not be a new friend.

Holland Taylor’s “Ann” is indeed a work of art, and heart. It is also something she never thought she could do.  With the exception of four or five well-known quotes, the entire play is sprung from the head of Zeus (or Athena, aka Miss Taylor.)  Holland often consulted with Ann’s close friends and always with Cecile Richards, to make sure she was capturing the rowdy, compassionate, straightforward persona of Ann.  And she always did.  (The play is two acts — one is Ann giving a graduation speech, telling students of her life and her climb to the governor’s office.  The second act is Ann in Office, a fast, furiously funny look at a day in the life of this particular woman, doing her particular thing, dealing with staff, other politicians, fighting the good fight with an eye on the realities — no matter how noble your intentions, idealism dies after the oath of office is taken, and compromise is a given.)

I talked to Holland a bit the day after her “Ann” event, which was all red-carpet and paparazzi and a lot of celebs — Tina Brown, Andre Bishop, Bobby Cannavale, Elizabeth Peabody, Martha Plimpton, Joni Evans, Nancy Collins, Dana Ivey, Tovah Feldshuh, Mica Etergun, Huma Abedin, Gail Sheehy, William Norwich, Patti Bosworth, Cyndi Stivers, etc.  All the hoopla appeared to take Holland a bit by surprise.  “I gave Peggy Siegal a list of people I thought might want to come.  And, yeah, I knew it was a ‘Peggy Siegal’ event, but ... am I naïve to be surprised and pleased by the turnout?”  (Well, a little, Holland — that’s why you’re NOT like those perpetually sanguine characters you so often play.)   Of course the fabled event-giver herself Ms. Siegal was on hand, doing that voodoo that she do so well. 

Holland seemed most engaged with the entire idea of BroadwayHD, which was founded in 2013 by producers Stewart F. Lane and Bonnie Comley. 
Broadway HD's Stewart F. Lane and Bonnie Comely Halley Feiffer and Micah Stock
Tina Brown Julie White Tina Louise
Bobby Cannavale Tovah Feldshuh
Celia Weston Chilina Kennedy Martha Plimpton
Brenda Vaccaro Dana Ivey
Aside from the fact that “Ann” is now part of the streaming library, she recalled: “Years ago, I always used to hear about The Lunts, what a fabulous theater couple they were.  I always felt bad that their work onstage couldn’t be preserved.  I saw several early films they made, and although as vehicles they were rather creaky, you could still feel the charm, what they must have been onstage.  Now, great theater performances don’t have to be lost. Forty and fifty years from now, people will be able to see Nathan Lane at his best — and that will be seeing one of the true geniuses of the stage!”  (You can subscribe to BroadwayHD for about $100 a year. That’s quite a bargain, considering what most of us spend a hundred bucks a year on — stuff we could certainly do without, and which doesn’t elevate us one bit.)
Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt.
Holland left me with these thoughts:

“All this has made me remember the experience of writing and re writing ... and how I would get in the zone sometimes, especially just before Broadway when I was so transported by the submerging into it, with so much experience of playing her behind me.  I remember I felt like I was writing a poem almost, and my pencil hardly left the page.  One line which references what I imagine her thoughts might have been when she took her last job in new York, I don’t even need to look at the script now, that passage is seared into me:  "So there I went — from a tree-shaded Capitol, from piney woods, rough rivers, and hills — Over to a land of glass and steel, and impossible heights! Why, why from my window I could almost see the curvature of the earth! ... And all those people! I was terrified! — I was thrilled.  And man, did I hear America singing.”

We need to hear America sing again. That’s another subject.  For the moment, experience “Ann.”  Wrestle with the fact that she is not with us now, when we need that voice so desperately. Face up to that fact without hopelessness.  Ms. Richards would not approve. She’d want us to get off our asses and DO something.

Thank you Ann; thank you Holland Taylor.

Photos: Marion Curtis/Starpix (screening)

Contact Denis here.