Review of Holbrook/Twain: An American Odyssey, Directed by Scott Teems
Film festival-goers who are serious film lovers know that opening-night selections are usually high-wattage PR vehicles rather than the probing, artful films that are the strength of most festivals. This year’s AFI DOCS international documentary film festival opening night was an exception. If Holbrook/Twain: An American Odyssey views Twain less than critically, its portrait of Holbrook only flirts with hagiography, allowing the actor himself to memorably give voice to his own failings as a husband and a father. It’s a feat of documentary filmmaking that Holbrook/Twain leaves viewers thinking more about the actor than the beloved figure he’s spent his career impersonating on stage.
Acerbic, cynical, skeptical—Mark Twain was America’s premier social critic, and Hal Holbrook has built a career as a fine actor by playing Twain on stage since 1954. Director Scott Teems (whose 2009 film That Evening Sun also starred Holbrook) was personally chosen to make the film by Holbrook’s wife, the late Dixie Carter, to whom the documentary is dedicated.
Teems’ film, shot in black and white, begins backstage after the actor’s 2,250th stage performance as Twain, as the actor critiques his performance at 1:45 a.m. Using a well worn paper-and-ink notebook, Holbrook writes down what worked and what didn’t work during the night’s performance. He uses these notes to ensure the next time the play comes to that town, he will not repeat the same material.
Holbrook’s dedication to his craft extends to the fake nose he self-applies before taking the stage as Twain, not to mention years of research on the American raconteur. He takes pride most in highlighting Twain’s lesser known monologues, chiefly those that criticize the United States. Religion and politicians are juicy targets, and Holbrook relishes giving voice to them, recounting the surprisingly positive reception he received to potentially inflammatory material in places such as the Deep South.
If the film never utters a critical word about Twain, it doesn’t shy away from the foibles of the man who has, for so long, played Twain on stage in a one-man show, Mark Twain Tonight!. Decades of performances of the successful show meant decades of evenings when Holbrook was on the road and not at home with his kids at night.
“Lots of actors screw up their marriages and children because they’re so dedicated, as I was,” says the thrice-married Holbrook, who was also Carter’s third husband (the two were married more than 25 years until Carter’s death). “My children suffered for it,” he notes, adding that he was abandoned by his own parents as a young boy.
Teems interviews Holbrook’s son, David, who reveals that his father’s absence during David’s younger years led to an aimless life of hitchhiking and living “like a hobo.” Eve, a daughter from another marriage, remembers outings with her dad being so infrequent that each one felt similar to “going on a date,” and David now worries that he “maybe gives too much” to his own children as a way of overcompensating for the absence of his father during his childhood.
At its core, Holbrook /Twain: An American Odyssey is a story of Holbrook’s lifelong commitment and dedication to his craft, and watching the 89-year-old actor’s disciplined approach to his craft and to his health (the film includes footage of Holbrook’s daily exercise routine) proves inspirational. The author of Ecclesiastes tell us, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might” (9:10). Holbrook/Twain shows one man’s dedication to his craft, but it doesn’t shy away from the pain that commitment caused the actor’s family, nor the remorse he feels about that in retrospect. Audiences are left to wonder how they might emulate Holbrook’s work ethic while retaining the work/life balance that eluded him and damaged his family—an admirable counterweight to what could have been an exclusively rosy portrait of an actor in the twilight of his life.