LOS ANGELES – As one of the more renowned playwrights of the past 60 years, Terrence McNally has rarely pulled any punches. So it’s fitting that a new documentary about his influential life would follow suit.
In the two-hour film, “Terrence McNally: Every Act of Life,” marquee names including Rita Moreno, Edie Falco and Chita Rivera rave about the author’s most celebrated works, including “Master Class” and “Love! Valour! Compassion!”
But they also are brutally honest about the four-time Tony winner’s shortcomings, both personal and professional. Actor Christine Baranski looks back at the time she chastised the author over an early draft of 1991’s “Lips Together, Teeth Apart” that was not up to snuff. Angela Lansbury recalls how she once pulled aside a drunken McNally at a cocktail party and forced him to face his alcohol addiction.
“After Nathan Lane saw this movie, he said, ‘Leave it to you to be 12-stepped by Angela Lansbury,’ ” McNally said this past February. “That experience with her was profound. And what’s in the movie is very honest. I’m glad it’s been recorded because I think it might help other young people who maybe are struggling with substance abuse.”
Despite McNally’s overall enthusiasm for the film, premiering locally Friday on TPT as part of “American Masters,” it wasn’t always easy taking a trip down memory lane. The final cut includes details about his romantic affairs with Edward Albee and Wendy Wasserstein. McNally also doesn’t hold back on his disdain for his hometown, Corpus Christi, Texas, and actors who ignore his punctuation marks.
“I don’t like looking back. I don’t like having turned 80 a couple weeks ago,” he said. “But when I do look back, I like what I see. I’ve had a great life. I’ve always been blessed in finding people who share my vision. And I’ve worked with some really good actors who maybe haven’t been really good in plays of mine because they don’t hear my rhythms and they don’t share my point of view. It’s like singers. ‘Boy, you should hear her sing Cole Porter, but you don’t want to hear her latest jazz album.’ So it’s about finding kindred spirits.”
One of those kindred spirits is Oscar winner F. Murray Abraham, who praised the playwright both in the documentary and in a more recent interview.
“His characters are alive. They speak to me,” said Abraham, who got one his biggest career breaks when he was cast in the 1975 original production of McNally’s “The Ritz.” “There are other writers that I can say that about, too, but with Terrence, it always seems like he’s writing for me. I feel that way about Shakespeare, too.”
Michael Shannon is equally enthralled.
“I think it’s in the title of one of his plays: compassion. He’s one of the most profoundly compassionate playwrights ever,” said the Oscar nominee, who is not featured in the documentary but currently stars opposite Audra McDonald in a Broadway revival of McNally’s “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune.” “A play like ‘Frankie and Johnny’ is just so humane and is not trying to make any point other than that human beings are there for one another, the mystery of that, how you navigate that and how you get the most out of that.”
The documentary, which has already been well received on the film-festival circuit, lets us eavesdrop on Falco and Abraham while they meet over coffee to talk about their experiences performing “Frankie and Johnny.” Meryl Streep and Bryan Cranston pay tribute by reading excerpts from various plays. “Act of Life” director Jeff Kaufman admits he wasn’t able to dig as deeply into some of his subject’s works as he would have liked.
“I wish we had done a little more on his opera, ‘Dead Man Walking,’ so we’ll do that in the sequel,” Kaufman said. “But basically, I think the lesson is that Terrence’s work is just incredibly fresh. Billy Porter has a line in the film where he says, ‘We stand on his shoulders.’ I hope that everyone comes away from this realizing that so much of the modern theater and so much of what we expect in society today really does stand on Terrence’s shoulders.”
McNally hasn’t had nearly as much impact in TV or film. He admits he’s not a natural screenwriter, although he’s proud of a script he wrote on the life of opera composer Giacomo Puccini that never got made. He once pitched a TV series with “All in the Family” creator Norman Lear.
“It was a pretty long walk to his car after our meeting with CBS and by the time we got there, they had already turned it down,” McNally said. “Norman said they really hated me.”
If McNally ’s legacy remains largely limited to the stage, that’s just fine with him.
“I still think the theater is an incredible forum,” he said. “The lights go down. I’m always excited. And then we’re in a discussion for the next two hours about this subject. There’s an aliveness to it that, quite frankly, a movie or television show doesn’t have. I think there’s always going to be a need to sit down with our fellow man in the dark, watching other fellow men live, telling us a story at that very moment. I don’t think that will ever go away.”