“We Stand On His Shoulders”: ‘American Masters’ Doc Reveals Historic Impact Of “Out” Playwright Terrence McNally

Playwright Terrence McNally’s death from coronavirus-related causes in late March deprived the theater world of one of its greatest talents, a four-time Tony Award winner known for Master Class and Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, among many other works. Just how much he achieved in his 81 years comes into focus in the Emmy-contending documentary Terrence McNally: Every Act of Life, directed by Jeff Kaufman and produced by Marcia Ross.

“At every stage of Terrence’s life, he keeps pushing himself in a new direction,” Kaufman tells Deadline. “He never plays it safe. He’s a truth teller.”

The film premiered on PBS last year as part of American Masters. That series, winner of 28 Emmys to date, is once again up for consideration as Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Series, and the Terrence McNally episode will appear on nomination ballots in the directing, editing, cinematography and sound categories. Kaufman demurs on what Emmy recognition would mean to him personally, but he doesn’t hold back about the series.

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“Obviously, American Masters should totally be nominated for best series,” he notes, “both for a remarkable season that they just had and then also just for always being at the forefront of documentaries that really reflect something significant about America.”

McNally’s significance lies not only in his plays and librettos, but in the way he lived his life. He grew up in conservative Corpus Christi, Texas, a child of alcoholic parents. His father beat him, and so did classmates when they found out he was gay. That did not deter McNally from remaining open about his sexuality, a habit of being he took with him to New York where he went to college and later began his theater career.

“Terrence was out when Edward Albee, with whom he had a long relationship, was still in the closet,” Kaufman observes. “Tennessee Williams was still in the closet. Thornton Wilder and William Inge were all still living under the fear of being ‘out.’ But Terrence was there and himself and set an example, and I think that’s an example that still resonates.”

McNally’s sexuality was reflected in his work in a way that New York theater had never seen before.

“His [1964] play And Things That Go Bump in the Night, even though it wasn’t a success, featured an open and self-confident gay character for the first time on a Broadway stage,” Kaufman points out. “Terrence, not just on stage but in his life, was showing the way, back in the early ’60s.”

In 1975’s The Ritz (which he later adapted into a movie) McNally dared to foreground an emotionally stable gay character, in contrast to other films and plays of the time that used queer folk as risible scenic distractions.

“We stand on his shoulders,” says actor Billy Porter, who is shown in the film reading from Noon, a gay-themed play McNally wrote in 1968. “It transported me to a time where Terrence is really cutting edge. And today we forget that because we’ve just come so far.”

By 1982 McNally was a very successful playwright, but he was also a notorious drunk. The documentary recounts how one night, at a birthday party for Stephen Sondheim, the writer spilled a drink on Lauren Bacall. Then a guardian angel intervened in the form of Angela Lansbury. The actress recalls the conversation they had that changed the course of McNally’s life.

“He’s the only person I’ve ever done this to,” Lansbury recalls in Every Act of Life. “I said to him, ‘Why are you destroying yourself? You’re a brilliant writer. Listen to what I’m saying: stop drinking.’”

It was the wakeup call McNally needed, and it propelled him into a remarkable second act. He went on to write Frankie and Johnny… (1982); Lips Together, Teeth Apart (1991); Love! Valour! Compassion! (1994); Master Class (1995), and the books for the musicals Kiss of the Spider Woman (1992); Ragtime (1996), and The Full Monty (2000), among other credits.

“There’s a total change,” Kaufman comments, “and a change of depth in his work after he stopped drinking that’s wonderful.”

The director chokes up as he talks about McNally’s passing on March 24. The playwright was particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 because lung cancer surgery many years earlier had left him with only half a lung on one side and a quarter of a lung on the other. But McNally was vital until the end, still pondering the next project.

“In the last interview I saw him do—and this was months before he died—he said, ‘The play I’d really like to do, what I’d really like to work on now is about racism,’” Kaufman shares. “[McNally] said, ‘I think it’s so disturbing and so scary, and that’s what I would like to tackle next.’”

Kaufman can take some consolation knowing he was able, with the documentary, to fulfill a wish of McNally’s.

“I remember we were setting up for a shoot with Terrence in his apartmentWe were talking about what might happen with the film, and Terrence said, ‘Well, to be honest with you, the thing I would most like of all is if this could be on American Masters,’” Kaufman recalls. I said, ‘Well, that would be amazing, Terrence, but I can’t promise that. It would be great, but who knows?’”

Happily, it came to pass. The film is being made available for free on the PBS app and at PBS.org beginning June 15.

“Terrence had a chance to share the film with people all over the country at different screenings,” Kaufman tells Deadline. “It was always a wonderful experience to see the reaction on his face to how people felt about the film and about him…It’s so moving to know that the outcome Terrence wanted for the film, [to be on] American Masters, is what happened.”

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