Terrence McNally — the Tony Award-winning playwright of Love! Valour! Compassion! and Master Class — has led an extraordinary life, which is captured in a new documentary, Every Act of Life.
Directed by Jeff Kaufman, the film begins with the gay writer's humble beginnings in Corpus Christie, Texas, and follows his move to New York City to attend Columbia University. From there, he begins a lifetime adventure working for and with some of the world’s greatest luminaries. McNally’s first boyfriend was Edward Albee. He traveled with John Steinbeck as a tutor for his family. Angela Lansbury helped him with his drinking problem.
Lansbury herself recounted the story in the documentary, which is rich in interviews with McNally’s collaborators on his productions, including actors like Nathan Lane, Rita Moreno, Audra McDonald, Chita Rivera, John Glover, and Christine Baranski. Many of them established their careers through McNally plays.
They, and McNally himself, recount behind-the-scenes stories from notable productions like Ragtime, Kiss of the Spider Woman, The Full Monty, Corpus Christi, Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, and The Ritz. It would be impossible to cover them all in a 93-minute film. (In fact, many of those interviewed for the documentary fell to the cutting-room floor.) In his lifetime, McNally, who is still writing hits like Broadway's Anastasia, penned more about three dozen plays and won four Tony Awards for his work, as well as numerous works for the large and small screen.
McNally told The Advocate that he “loves” the film, and he can’t wait to get his hands on the DVD. “If I'm ever feeling sorry for myself, well, all I have to do is slip that in and say, ‘Wow, you've had a very fortunate life, and you’ve known some extraordinary people, and they've been very generous with their talent and affection. Aren't you a lucky one,’” he marveled.
What most impressed McNally about the film is not the scope of his own life, but the different creative worlds his life has touched. “I feel the film is about what a wonderful family a theater is and how we create our own families. I feel it's a celebration of that,” said McNally, who noted how lucky as a writer he is to be part of that community. “Certainly, I don't think novelists connect that way.”
And Every Act of Life is also a history lesson in the modern gay rights movement, with McNally as its access point. His work itself is a review of gay representation in the theater world. In 1975, The Ritz was set in a gay bathhouse. The impact of the AIDS crisis was explored in works like 1991’s Lips Together, Teeth Apart, and later in 2014’s Mothers and Sons. Corpus Christi set the religious world on fire as a depiction of a gay Jesus and his queer disciples.
"He was writing about the gay community years, decades, before anybody. It was invisible," attested actress Swoosie Kurtz at the screening of Every Act of Life at the Outfest LGBTQ Film Festival. "He was totally covering the waterfront with courage and candor and complete fearlessness."
The dramas of this movement are seen in McNally’s own life, where AIDS sadly takes center stage. Actor Robert Drivas, an ex-partner of McNally, died of an AIDS-related illness in the '80s. McNally’s partner, producer Gary Bonasorte, died of AIDS-related lymphoma in 2000. These were personal losses, but also losses to the creative community, which is a lesson that must be passed on.
“I'm constantly being told that young people need to be reminded of the enormous loss, of the enormous pain and horror of those years, and they're quick to forget it or never taught it,” said McNally. “This movie maybe reminds them of the enormous loss to the arts that was the result of AIDS.”
The film shows the LGBTQ movement’s progress as well. In one highlight, New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio officiate the marriage of McNally to his partner Tom Kirdahy; the couple renewed their vows after the historic Obergefell Supreme Court decision in 2015. Another scene shows a throng of people supporting the city’s AIDS Walk.
For McNally, it is extraordinary to watch his life unfold across the historic backdrop of increasing acceptance toward LGBTQ people.
“I've always been happy to be a gay man, but this movie makes me happy for gay men, period — and women, how we've grown as a community in my lifetime,” remarked McNally. “When this movie begins, it was against the law to be gay. I'm still alive, and I'm legally married, and gay men and women are adopting children. That's an enormous change to experience in one man's lifetime.”
Thus, Every Act of Life, is not just a film. It is a “wonderful record, [a] document of the times we've gone through” as gay people, said McNally, as well as the “wonderful progress towards a more significant role or place in American society.”
And hopefully, LGBTQ viewers can learn a few lessons in self-love from one of the community's pioneers.
"I was never conflicted about being gay," he said. "I'm not very religious, but I think God deals us our hand, and hopefully it's a good hand. I thought being gay was not a bad one."
This progress has reflected itself in notable ways in the entertainment world. McNally recalled that when The Boys in the Band opened 50 years ago, the majority of the cast was closeted. Today, the revival of the production is being touted for its all-out cast, which is a remarkable departure in how plays are marketed. It also adds more pressure to perform.
“By recognizing equality and marriage for men and women, I just think we have stopped being as interesting to the straight majority … now the exotic thing about being gay is no longer an issue,” McNally said.
Now that the “exotic” factor is gone, it falls to queer content to become excellent content, advised McNally. This is also part of equality. “We used to go to restaurants just because they were gay-owned. And that doesn't matter now. It's got to be a good restaurant. Or we saw a play because it was a gay play. No, now it's got to be a good play,” McNally said. “We have really taken our place at the table, and it's our job now to maintain it.”
Art also has a job to be responsive to the current era, in which LGBTQ rights are under attack by the current administration. For McNally — and many more queer artists — this climate of oppression is nothing new.
“Art has always responded to dark times. I'm trying to think of when I lived that was supposedly a ‘happy time,’” said McNally. “All my work has been written in response to difficult times. If it wasn't civil rights, it was Vietnam, it was AIDS. I don't know when it's been kind. America has never been a Switzerland in my lifetime.”
Would McNally write a play about this period? “It’s too easy a target almost. I don't see any subtlety in the story,” said McNally, who is currently considering three other subjects for plays.
However, McNally finds hope in the backlash to the current administration, as evidenced by the recent primary election of progressive candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. He sees her win as a sign of better times to come.
“Real change is going to be in the air this fall, and I’m very excited about that. I think a lot of gay men and women are going to be significant there,” said McNally. “All the shit that's going down by the hour I'm still very optimistic that the end is in sight and sanity is going to return to our country.”
“I'm really tired of hating so much, so much. It's exhausting. I just wanted it over with,” he added.
McNally hopes that his plays can teach a new generation that “we can prevail if we don't give up hope, if we fight back, if we don't take it lying down.”
Or as Moreno, who starred in The Ritz, attested: "Terrence’s art simply tells us that we go on. We just keep moving and don’t let anyone stop us. ... You have to toughen up. Stop feeling sorry for yourself. Get up off the floor, dust yourself off, and keep moving."
Watch a teaser from Every Act of Life below.