Playwright Terrence McNally admits there are some surprises in the new documentary about himself called “Every Act of Life.”
He thought he wanted to be a journalist, but he enjoyed writing a play at Yale. Then, budding playwright Edward Albee asked him to come over for a nightcap and the decade-older man became McNally’s first boyfriend. McNally moved in as Albee was penning the classic “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
And later, McNally found himself in a three-year bisexual phase during a secret relationship with “Heidi Chronicles” playwright Wendy Wasserstein. McNally’s brother Peter was surprised to spot the pair embraced in “the biggest romantic kiss.” McNally’s friends thought he didn’t want to be gay anymore in the time of AIDS.
“I was surprised to see all that in the movie,” McNally said. “I’ve never been very public about it. Wendy knew how to keep secrets.”
McNally added, “I thought of myself as a person who gets in relationships with other men and suddenly I was in a significant relationship with a woman. It was just a surprise, and you know, life is filled with surprises.”
The documentary is one of the surprise hits at this year’s Outfest, which has more than 10 percent of its 150 films listed as documentaries. On Sunday (July 15), the film had a star-studded red carpet premiere and post-screening party after a sold-out screening and a surprisingly raucous Q&A.
Rita Moreno enchanted the audience with old Hollywood stories and she rephrased audience members’ questions like the one to actor Justin Kirk for his sexy role in “Love! Valor! Compassion!” — “They want to know if you showed your pee-pee during the audition,” she said.
For health reasons, McNally couldn’t make it to the West Coast, and he’s doing fine after multiple surgeries for lung cancer. He is now writing three more plays, and doing occasional interviews about the movie.
The documentary hits theaters nationally just before McNally turns 80 on Nov. 3, and will coincide with a book of the same name written by the documentary’s director Jeff Kaufman.
“People don’t know how much of a trailblazer Terrence was then, and now in this time when we are seeing a regression in our rights he reminds us we cannot be complacent,” Kaufman said. “It’s great that we’re here at Outfest, because every film here was influence by Terrence. There’s a piece of Terrence McNally in all of them.”
During a phone interview conducted in one of the DGA screening rooms along with Kaufman, I told McNally a personal story about interviewing Albee in the early 1980s for our school paper when he visited the University of Florida. I won a state award in high school for “The Zoo Story” and after the interview, Albee invited me to his hotel room to have me show him how I performed it.
“I didn’t go, I was on deadline, and that may be one of the few big regrets of my life,” I told McNally.
McNally laughed and sighed: “You probably did the right thing.”
Albee and McNally’s tumultuous relationship was filled with alcohol, and it became such a problem that he was berated by Lauren Bacall for spilling a drink on her at Stephen Sondheim’s birthday party. Later in the party, Angela Lansbury pulled him aside and gently begged him to stop drinking.
That story was another surprise for McNally when he saw the movie: “I always blame Angela for getting me sober with that spontaneous gesture of kindness. I’m glad she talked about it on film. Maybe people will see they can be more loving rather than shaming them.”
McNally’s successes include “Master Class,” “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” “Anastasia,” and plays put on film including the “The Fully Monty,” “Frankie and Johnny” and “Andre’s Mother.” The doc includes some of his flops as well, such as his first play in 1964 called “And Things That Go Bump in the Night,” which features a major out gay character and a same-sex love scene.
“You have to realize that he wrote a groundbreaking play at the time with a multi-faceted gay character, but the critics just decimated him,” said the documentary’s producer Marcia Ross, who first met McNally when doing a documentary “State of Marriage” with Kaufman about same-sex marriage. That documentary includes McNally and his present husband Thomas Kirdahy, a former Broadway producer and civil rights attorney. Ross and Kaufman loved theater and realized that McNally’s life story also should be told, and they got married to each other while making the doc.
McNally notes that the main problem he had in relationships with Albee and later with actor Robert Drivas was that they weren’t public about their sexuality, fearing career repercussions.
“I think everybody knows the evils of the closet right now, and how it just corrupts the soul when you make that choice to stay in the closet,” McNally said, pointing out how things have changed now. “Any person not public about being gay does so at an enormous personal cost, and I would be surprised that anyone would make that decision in 2018. I think they are to blame, not society.”
His friend, Moreno recalled, “Terrence paved the way for people to be out. He was very courageous back then.”
As of a dozen people who have ever won a Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony award, Moreno credits McNally’s “The Ritz” with giving her a much-needed career boost. “The Ritz” takes place in a gay bathhouse and earned Moreno her first Tony, and she later starred in the film. McNally saw her doing a wild outrageous character at a party and then wrote the part for her — something he was known to do for other favorite actors like Nathan Lane, Christine Baranski, James Coco and Doris Roberts.
Moreno — who is also having her own documentary being made about her life — summed the McNally’s documentary at the party after, saying: “I’ve seen a lot of biopics lately, and this one was done so well. As well as I know the man, it was still full of surprises.”
Outfest is the oldest film festival in Los Angeles and is one of the largest LGBTQ film festivals in the world, attracting more than 40,000 viewers. This year, the festival is increasing its diversity with an ongoing Trans Summit, a Bisexuals in Hollywood panel and a focus on Taiwanese films. The festival ends July 22 showing the Sundance-winning film about conversion therapy,“The Miseducation of Cameron Post.”