Strong Words

Although Molly Ivins is Texas-bred (and famously said “Texas is the national laboratory for bad government”), she was actually born in Monterey.

In May 2012, when filmmaker Janice Engel of Los Angeles went to see the play Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins, it was a revelation. Not just for the one-woman performance by its star, Kathleen Turner, but for the humane ideas and brash banter of its subject, the legendary political columnist Molly Ivins.

Ivins had been one of the most respected, beloved, feared, hated and popular newspaper columnists of her time. She died in 2007, but Engel hadn’t heard of her, and was astonished at the energy and wit that came through in the play. She secured the requisite permissions and green lights to make a documentary film, Raising Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins, which made an auspicious debut this year at Sundance, SXSW and the San Francisco Film Festival, and was picked up by Magnolia Pictures.

It’s coming to Osio Theater this Friday, with Engel and her producers sitting in on a post-film Q&A, moderated by CSU Monterey Bay film professor Meghan O’Hara.

The film has archival footage and photos of Ivins, and interviews with those close to her, colleagues and admirers, including Paul Begala, Dan Rather, her siblings Andy and Sara, formerTexas Observer editor Kay Northcott, former Texas Governor Ann Richards, author Anne Lamott, and plenty more. We hear from her detractors too, which Ivins wouldn’t have any other way.

Ivins grew up in a WASPy family headed by a controlling, right-wing, Republican oil executive father. She was 6 feet tall by age 14, big boned and overdeveloped. It made her shy, but she found solace in books and in writing. At some point she saw the movie Deadline U.S.A., starring Humphrey Bogart as a crusading newspaper editor, and decided that traveling the world as “a martyr to fearless journalism” was the holy grail. She changed her name from Mary to Molly – Mary was too religious and too common.

She was an anomaly, a big young lady with smarts, a strong persona (but secretly shy), with a down-home accent. She had gone to a private school, lived a stint in France, and got an East Coast Ivy League education, but she could also relate to rural folk (her endearingly named Bubbas) and, as the film’s title alludes, raise hell.

“I’m a Texan,” she says. “I drive a pickup truck. I hunt. I cuss. I drink beer. I’m a liberal.”

“I drive a truck. I hunt. I cuss. I drink beer. I’m a liberal.”

She spared none from her discerning eye. Not even her beloved Texas, which she demystified this way: “The reason why the sky is bigger here is because we got no trees. Cowboys mostly stink. And it is hot nearly all the dang time.”

She came of age in the 1960s and ‘70s at newspapers like the Houston Chronicle, where she was the “sewer editor,” the Minneapolis Tribune where she was the first woman police reporter and had a radical streak, and the muckraking Texas Observer where she covered state politics with ornery humor and had fun, boozy times with colleagues and sources.

Because she seemed to be made of stern stuff, her editors didn’t give her fluff assignments or treat her gently.

“It was always ‘Ivins get your ass out there,’” she says in one of the many archival interviews the film borrows from. The film covers this period at a brisk pace that matches the zeal of her love for the work.

She went on to write for the New York Times in 1976, which resulted in a hilarious culture clash that the film covers succinctly. At the Dallas Times Herald she was nominated twice for the Pulitzer Prize. Then she went to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and nationwide syndication and fame.

Although she was an avowed liberal and flaunted it, believing that neutrality in journalism was a fallacy, Engel – and others in the film – say that, ultimately, “She went after stupidity.”

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There’s lots of Ivins in the film, her words both spoken and written, archival photos showing her having a rollicking time at work, footage from C-SPAN and news commentaries. She used words like a sword and shield against just targets in defense of vulnerable people.

She famously referred to Newt Gingrich as the “draft-dodging, dope-smoking, deadbeat dad who divorced his dying wife.” She referred to George W. Bush as “The Shrub,” as in a smaller bush. But she earned the respect of most thinking people regardless of their political affiliation. The film reveals her to be a champion of a brand of crusading journalism that seems to be giving way.

Engel thinks there are some journalists, comedians and media figures today who display some variants of Ivins’ acute political intelligence and wit: Samantha Bee, Bill Maher, John Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Rachel Maddow (“When I told her that, she said, basically, to stop blowing smoke up her ass,” Engel says). In newspapers, there’s Gail Collins and Maureen Dowd.

But Engel’s film suggests that they don’t make ’em like that anymore, that Ivins’ special brand of truth-telling zeal is needed now more than ever (Trump), and hopes the film inspires others, especially young people, to step up and carry on that torch.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect the following correction. The Q&A is on Friday, Oct. 18, not Saturday, Oct. 19.

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