This fine, partisan documentary resurrects Ann Richards, and it’s showing on HBO in a Lone Star election year. The Republicans better worry about Texans seeing it.
By Gerald Peary
Bill Clinton recalls one of the great dinners of his life, sitting down with Billy Crystal, Robin Williams, and Ann Richards. The funniest of the group by far was Richards. “She joked them under the table,” says Clinton. There are laughs aplenty in the rousing, excellent documentary, All About Ann: Governor Richards of the Lone Star State, playing on HBO April 28 through May. With a charming country drawl and the astute comic timing of a Lucille Ball, Richards won over conservative Texas with her warmth and humor and sharp intelligence. She was elected to the governorship in 1991 as an unabashed liberal, a pro-choice progressive. This film spends lots of time on that immensely colorful campaign, showing how Richardson defeated two shaky, name-calling Democrats in the primary, and demolished perhaps the world’s most ignoramus candidate, Republican Clayton Williams, in the general election, soon after Williams advised raped woman to “just relax and enjoy it.”
I wish I’d been there in Austin the day she was sworn in as Texas’s 45th governor, amidst the jubilant crowds on Congress Street. And I applaud Richards’ four years in office, taking on the insurance lobby, bringing drug and alcohol programs to the state’s prisons, thrusting blacks, Latinos, and women into power, and, unlike every other Texas governor in memory, not using the office as a “Thumbs Up” for executing one and all on Death Row.
Do all good things come to an end? They sure did in Texas where Richards, starting with a nifty 60% approval rating, was knocked out of office in 1995 by Karl Rove and his pinhead Pinocchio, George W. Bush. Although crime was down during Richards’ time in office, Rove and his puppet insisted, speech after speech, that Texas, with a softy female in the reigns, was becoming more dangerous by the day. And there was the Republican whispering campaign too, that Richards, a grandmother with four children, was a lesbian. “She’s a liberal in a conservative state,” Rove gave George W. his mantra. “I’m a conservative in a conservative state.”
It was unthinkable, but Bush was Texas’s new governor. In public appearances, Richards refused to be pinned down when asked, dozens of times a day, what she would do next. “I’m going to do any damned thing I want to,” she said. And that meant, when not working for a Washington law firm, traveling the country campaigning for pro-choice women candidates. And speaking up for gay and lesbian rights.
Good things do come to an end, Richards died of esophageal cancer in 2006, far too early at 73. But this fine, partisan documentary resurrects her, and it’s showing on HBO in a Lone Star election year. The Republicans better worry about Texans seeing it. Clearly, Wendy Davis, the outspoken pro-choice Democratic candidate, carries the spirit of Ann Richards: “Feisty, funny, and unafraid…. Liberal and unafraid.”
It’s only partially hyperbole when Richards’ friend, ageless journalist Liz Smith, said at her funeral that, though Smith was acquainted with Eleanor Roosevelt, Katharine Hepburn, and Mother Theresa, “Ann Richards was the greatest woman I ever knew.”
Gerald Peary is a professor at Suffolk University, Boston, curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of 9 books on cinema, writer-director of the documentary For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess.