Think what you like about today’s political world, no one is likely to say it suffers from a lack of professional pundits. So why is it we walk out of “Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins” wishing like hell that she was alive to give us her very particular take on the times we live in.
That’s because, as depicted in this sprightly, fast-paced documentary directed by Janice Engel, Ivins was a one-of-a-kind commentator who was both smart and savagely funny, using a take-no-prisoners sense of humor to eviscerate those she felt abused the public trust.
Having met Dan Quayle, she tells one interviewer, she found him “dumber than advertised. If you put that man’s brain in a bumblebee, it would fly backwards.”
Making these kinds of remarks go down easy was Ivins’ unmistakable personal style and sense of fun. Six feet tall with a great ear-to-ear grin, Ivins made being unapologetic so much her trademark her first best-selling book was titled simply “Molly Ivins Can’t Say That, Can She?”
A native Texan with the engaging accent to prove it, Ivins was also someone who loved a good time, a big drinker (which eventually proved to be a problem) who could carouse with the best of them and often did.
By far the biggest pleasure of “Raise Hell” is listening to its subject do exactly that. Though she died of breast cancer at age 62 in 2007, footage of Ivins giving speeches and being interviewed on camera is plentiful and always entertaining.
“Holding people to contempt and ridicule is what I do,” she proclaims, and she took pride in the fact that when the Dallas Times Herald, where she worked for 10 years, took a poll on its best-loved and most-hated columnists, she won both titles.
But “Raise Hell” does more than allow us to bask in Ivins’ trademark attitude and humor; it shows us how she got that way and explores the toll that being the public Molly Ivins took on her personal life.
Though she ended up a liberal stalwart, Ivins grew up among the Texas elite in the River Oaks section of Houston, so addicted to nonstop reading in the attic that her family nicknamed her “the mole.”
Ivins’ father was an autocratic right-wing oil man, and the battles between them, the writer’s brother and sister report, were epochal. “My teenage rebellion,” Ivins reports tartly, “lasted 35 years.”
Journalism caught Ivins’ fancy early on as a way, she hoped, “to have fun and do good and raise hell all the time.”
She was the first female police reporter at the Minneapolis Tribune, but her career really took off when she was hired to co-edit Austin’s iconoclastic Texas Observer.
Because she both knew her home state and had an acerbic eye, Ivins turned out to be a natural at covering Texas politics, where her outsider point of view made an interesting combination with her good-old-boy willingness to hang out with the gang.
One of the friends Ivins made was Ann Richards, who went on to become a formidable governor of Texas, and the clip “Raise Hell” shows of the two of them pitilessly needling each other at a roast is priceless.
Journalism buffs will be especially interested in Ivins’ tales of her time at the august New York Times, where she wrote Elvis Presley’s obituary and frequently clashed with autocratic editor Abe Rosenthal.
Rosenthal eventually exiled Ivins to Denver where, as she liked to tell it, she was both “the Rocky Mountain bureau chief and the bureau.”
A carte blanche offer from the Times Herald lured her to Dallas, but it was her books, and her gift for all things Texas, that propelled her to the national stage when George W. Bush, whom she nicknamed “Shrub,” became president.
“Raise Hell” is not heavy on Ivins’ personal life, but it does talk about her problem with alcohol and the stress that went with, in effect, having to turn herself into a professional Texan.
Above all, it becomes clear, Molly Ivins believed in democracy. She felt this country belonged to all of us, with politicians, even the best of them, simply “the people we hire to drive the bus.”
Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes
Playing: Starts Friday, Laemmle Royal, West Los Angeles