Tracing acclaimed playwright Terrence McNally from his birth through the present day, ‘Every Act of Life’ is a look at the works of a theater legend.
In his more than five decades of work writing for the stage, Terrence McNally has made a niche for himself in the Broadway world as one of the most innovative and original writers there is. From his fictionalized tale of opera singer Maria Callas in Master Class to his explorations of sexuality in Love! Valour! Compassion! and Corpus Christi through to the musical epic Ragtime and beyond, McNally’s works have had lasting impacts across theater. Yet while he touches on personal details in many of his plays and musicals, the full story of one of the most awarded playwrights of all time has been mostly untold until now.
From director Jeff Kaufman, Every Act of Life is a look at what makes an artist and an activist like McNally tick, stretching back into his childhood in Corpus Christi, Texas and examining the man who has made so much of an impact. Discussing his relationships with various partners over the years to how he and his parents tried and failed to relate to one another, McNally and others get very candid about the life of one of the most beloved writers there is. While there is not much special or revelatory about the film as a whole, it still manages to surprise and entertain throughout.
With appearances from actors such as F. Murray Abraham, Nathan Lane, Rita Moreno and Audra McDonald as well as the voices of Bryan Cranston and Meryl Streep and many more, it is clear how beloved McNally is in the Broadway community and how many careers he is responsible for building. McNally’s credits are filled with epic tales from production, fighting through critical failures and projects that were nearly grounded for political reasons. The numerous clips and readings from his works only help to illustrate just how talented McNally is.
But the most interesting aspects of the story often come from tales of McNally’s personal life, specifically the romances he had over the years, too many ending in tragedy. Tales of McNally’s early career romance and rivalry with Edward Albee and stories about the confusion his family and friends had when he fell for a woman are the most jovial and entertaining in the film. But the depth comes from stories about how HIV and AIDS ravaged the people that McNally cared about in life, partners and friends alike. Along with being a massively successful playwright, McNally has had just as much impact as a LGBT activist during his long career, which Every Act of Life brushes on though doesn’t fully examine.
Though the celebrity interviews and McNally’s own stories provide amusing anecdotes, the documentary never finds a cohesive balance between the personal and professional life of the writer. One scene will feature him writing and debuting a play with tales of the careers he launched, and the next is a tale of McNally’s home life. Though told chronologically, the film feels disjointed and scattershot frequently. But editing aside, the movie still keeps you invested in the life and success of a genius.
McNally, who is still alive and working, is a great subject for a film like Every Act of Life; a wide-spreading biography and career analysis of a great artist. While at times unfocused, Kaufman and crew still manage to find the heart and soul of Terrence McNally as a writer, as a social justice advocate, and as a human.
Every Act of Life premiered on Monday, April 23rd at the Tribeca Film Festival