Kathleen Turner Channels Molly Ivins' 'Kick-Ass Wit'

Molly Ivins i i

hide captionA writer and editor for periodicals from the scrappy Texas Observer to the staid New York Times, Molly Ivins regularly skewered the powerful and the pretentious in a syndicated column that ran in more than 350 newspapers. She wrote two best-sellers — Shrub: The Short but Happy Political Life of George W. Bush and Bushwhacked. She died of breast cancer in January 2007.

The Texas Observer
Molly Ivins

A writer and editor for periodicals from the scrappy Texas Observer to the staid New York Times, Molly Ivins regularly skewered the powerful and the pretentious in a syndicated column that ran in more than 350 newspapers. She wrote two best-sellers — Shrub: The Short but Happy Political Life of George W. Bush and Bushwhacked. She died of breast cancer in January 2007.

The Texas Observer

Kathleen Turner has always had a knack for playing a brassy broad. She was the sultry, murderous temptress in Body Heat, not to mention the uncredited voice of the voluptuous songstress Jessica Rabbit in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

And now, fresh off a guest-star stint as a sex-addicted Hollywood agent in Showtime's Californication, she's starring as the highly quotable, unflaggingly liberal newspaper columnist Molly Ivins in a new solo show — Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins, onstage at the Philadelphia Theatre Company through April 18.

Outside the world of journalism, Ivins was perhaps best known for coining the nickname "Shrub," a gently scornful reference George W. Bush, back when he was still governor of her adopted home state of Texas. But within the boys' club of 1970s newspapers, she was a force of nature.

"She fought like hell to be one of the boys and to cover real news," Turner tells NPR's Scott Simon. "She really, truly loved being a journalist and loved the reporting — loved getting out there and puncturing balloons and making the ridiculous look ridiculous."

Kathleen Turner

hide captionKathleen Turner first drew notice in the 1981 thriller Body Heat and rose to stardom in hits like Romancing the Stone and The War of the Roses. The winner of two Golden Globes, she earned an Academy Award nomination for Peggy Sue Got Married and a Tony Award nomination for her scorching turn as Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

Philadelphia Theatre Company

Red Hot Patriot, by the twin-sister writing team of Margaret and Allison Engel — both of them former journalists — delves deep into Ivins' story, exploring both her journalistic triumphs and her personal struggles. One of those struggles involved a drinking habit that grew out of what, at the time, was considered one of the tricks of the trade. As a politics reporter, Ivins ran with a crowd that used alcohol to loosen the tongues of Texas lawmakers.

"Being one of the boys," Turner says, "led to a great deal of drinking with the boys." And while it got her some good material over the years, "it really did get out of hand as time went on. ... It was out of control for many years."

Ivins gave her life to her profession. She never married and she never had children. According to Turner, "it was never as important as the fight she was carrying on" in the newsroom.

But Ivins was no orphan. She and her father — a powerful Houston oil executive — clashed on everything from politics to lifestyle. In the play, his death inspires Turner's Ivins to some unexpected, almost Shakespearean reflections:

What's Up Next?

Kathleen Turner tells Scott Simon that she hopes Red Hot Patriot will have a long life after its run at the Philadelphia Theatre Company — but before any repeat performance, she's got a couple of other commitments lined up.

"I'm doing an independent film next," she says. "And then after that, it's another new play called High, in which I play a recovering alcoholic foul-mouthed nun."

"As a child who disagreed with him most — I tell you, this was a man."

When the Engels brought their play to Turner, it appealed to her right away.

"I liked Molly so much, and I liked the idea of keeping her alive, and being able to honor her," Turner says. Finding a way to inhabit Ivins' personality was the first hurdle.

"It's such a fine line in this sort of genre," she says. "I'm interpreting Molly Ivins, I'm acting Molly Ivins, but that doesn't mean mimicking, or imitating. So it's a funny sort of — oh, how do I say it — an interpretation that one has to go through."

Turner was lucky enough to meet the writer before she died in 2007.

"She was big — she was really big," Turner says of the 6-foot-tall, redheaded, rawboned Ivins.

She had a big sense of her connection to the world, too. Turner remembers an event at which Maya Angelou, the African-American poet and autobiographer, introduced Ivins, the keynote speaker. As Turner recalls it, Ivins came bounding out from backstage, put her arm around Angelou and announced to the crowd: "I just want y'all to know the two of us were separated at birth."

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