When the call is for a smart, elegant, sophisticated woman who knows how to slip in a punch line, the answer is Holland Taylor. The star of stage, film and television found her match in the feisty star of Texas politics, Governor Ann Richards.
In the beginning
The time: Election Year 1988. The setting: the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta, destined to anoint Michael Dukakis as the party’s nominee. His opponent: Vice-president George Herbert Walker Bush, the Republicans’ eventual choice to succeed Ronald Reagan.
The Democrats’ keynote speaker: Ann Richards, a colorful Texas politico and seasoned state Treasurer, well known to everyone in her home state but not so well known in the rest of the U.S.
Richards was an odd choice in a way. Her positioning as keynote speaker certainly helped cement the Democrats’ feminist credentials, following Geraldine Ferraro’s nomination as the party’s Veep candidate in 1984. But Richards—quirky, tart-tongued, down-to-earth—was nothing like the sleek, poised East Coast Ferraro. You never knew what she’d say next, not a desirable trait in a keynote speaker at a national party convention.
Yet Richards turned out to be an inspired choice, igniting the animal spirits of her party with her memorable lampooning of the Democrats’ GOP opponent. Noting the wealthy patrician Bush I’s tendency to garble a phrase, she observed, “He can’t help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.”
That line brought down the house.
Political junkies still cherish this magic moment. So does versatile actress Holland Taylor, best known for her portrayals of rough-and-ready women on television and in the movies. She arrives in Washington later this month to star in her one-woman show, Ann, which follows the ups and downs of one of America’s most lively and unusual political careers. “I was thrilled by the splash she made at that 1988 convention, and I’ve been fascinated by her ever since,” says Taylor.
Unfortunately for the Democrats in 1988, the keynote address that inspired Taylor’s two-act drama proved the high point of their presidential campaign. The hapless Dukakis—more gaffe-prone than even Bush I—went down to defeat. But Ann Richards’ career had a happier fate. Her barnburner of a speech had instantly transformed her into a national figure and a Texas legend, leading to her election as Texas’ governor just two years later.
Discovering the real Ann Richards
Holland Taylor avidly followed Richards’ political trajectory in the years after that 1988 convention. Examining every detail, she became convinced that Ann Richards was an important figure in the late 20th century political landscape.
“Ann Richards was an impressive figure, an interesting figure, and iconic figure,” Taylor observes. “She was in some ways like a stern grade school teacher who’s hard on you because she wants you to do well. But at the same time, she was also very funny.”
Taylor also recalls “an appearance [Richards] made on the Larry King Show. Whenever she spoke, she was fantastically interesting, politically incorrect, and always great fun. She just captured my imagination.”
Though she only served for one term—run out of the Texas state house, ironically, by George W. Bush, the one-term President Bush I’s eldest son—Richards remained outspoken yet beloved by many Texas Democrats until her death from cancer in 2006 at the age of 73.
Taylor began to explore the complicated and surprisingly warm human being behind the public face of Ann Richards, conducting extensive research on her life. She learned that throughout her political career, Richards “had a genuine talent for connecting with people through hard work and humor. Even when she was negotiating, she could be funny. She’d connect to things that could make us all laugh and share the joys and challenges of being human beings.”
Taylor became genuinely obsessed with Richards’ life and times, an obsession that only intensified after the former Texas governor’s death. “I realized how much she meant to me,” she says, “but my feelings had no place to go.”
So she followed her intuition, methodically collecting recordings and video footage of Richards’ speeches, transcripts of meetings and events, newspaper articles, and anything else that she could find. She also interviewed family, friends, and acquaintances of the former governor, and conducted extensive archival research at the University of Texas.
After three years, as all this material began to fill an entire room in her California home, Taylor realized she needed to “actually do something about all this. It wasn’t really a career choice, but I simply had to write a play about her life. It was isolating, lonely work, but it was also fun and it allowed me to give in to my creative energies,” she says.
A colorful life
“I’ve been asked, ’Why write a play about someone who spent 18 years in government? Why not write a play about Amelia Earhart, someone who led a life of adventure and risk, filled with the thrill of flying and the many changes that took place in the world of aviation?’ Well, it’s true that politics is an adventure too,” says Taylor. “Particularly a successful career in government,” she adds. “Politics is exciting but nasty, a little like getting a serving of cold eggs ladled out on your breakfast plate.”
As she conducted her research on the former Texas governor’s backstory, Taylor discovered that, for all the fun and outrageousness that distinguished Ann Richard’s political life, this Texas firecracker with a heart of gold didn’t hit the political heights without a few detours on the way.
Taylor learned that there had been periods of darkness lurking behind Richards’ usually sunny public exterior. As any successful person knows, success in life generally doesn’t unfold in a straight line. As if to prove the point, things hadn’t always come up roses in Ann Richards’ life.
Richards seems to have had a normal early childhood, growing up as a “daddy’s girl” who also had to toe the line with her tougher mother. When dad was called off to war, she and her mother ended up moving to California.
Soon, this native Southern girl found herself enrolled in her first desegregated school. It was here that she learned about the other side of America, a country where all men were equal, but, in the words of George Orwell, some were more equal than others. This led her to conclude that, while life was not fair, “government should be.” It was a philosophy that she followed to the end of her life.
While she seemed to have a good head on her shoulders, Ann Richards’ life took an unfortunate turn in adulthood. She gave in to the temptations of the bottle, ending up as a full-fledged alcoholic and getting divorced from her husband, David Richards, a successful civil rights attorney. Says Richards in Taylor’s play, “I was the poster child for functioning alcoholics—I was functioning everywhere.”
But, like Bush II, Richards eventually had the guts to sober up and go straight which helped pave the way for her successful activist career in state government.
Holland Taylor concluded that Richards, while in many ways a “man’s woman,” frequently provided inspiration for many people across all walks of life. She overcame her weaknesses to become a key political force in a state accustomed to being run by swaggering, single-minded alpha males.
Tragedy, comedy, success, failure, and an indefatigable spirit, all wrapped up into a fair-minded politician who actually cared for the little guy. Holland Taylor had collected more than enough material to get cracking on writing her one-woman show.
The play’s the thing
Well aware that her evolving play involved a legendary political figure, Taylor chose to shape her material in what she calls a “non-partisan way” to focus on Ann Richards as a multi-faceted human being—even to the point of leaving out that signature 1988 keynote crack that made her a national figure. (At least in last year’s 2010 San Antonio production of the show.)
In selecting herself to write and headline this one-woman show, Taylor also reinforced her career-long knack for portraying tough, feisty, bigger-than-life female characters both on television and on the silver screen. Her current portrayal of Ann Richards is just the latest stop on a road that’s included her TV role as Charlie Sheen’s and Jon Cryer’s mom in “Two and a Half Men,” her stint as a tough-minded judge in “The Practice” (for which she copped an Emmy), and her portrayal of a law prof in the film “Legally Blonde.”
In Ann, Taylor’s ultimate aim was to re-create Richards’ persona, life, and times on stage, avoiding a carbon copy portrayal that might, to some, more closely resemble a parody rather than the affectionate portrait the actress-playwright intends. Nonetheless, to provide authenticity and local color to her portrayal, she studied the appropriate Texas accent with a dialogue coach recommended by her old friend, Tom Hanks. She also had a custom wig designed and manufactured for the show that closely resembles Ann Richards’ distinctive hairstyle.
The results of Taylor’s efforts were stunning in early performances. Wrote Jan Jarboe Russell in the San Antonio Express-News, when Taylor first strode onstage, “there were audible gasps from the audience. It was as if Ann, with her silver helmet of hair, gleaming white suit and strong swagger, were suddenly raised from the dead.”
As Taylor’s play came together and as she began to perform her material on regional stages, early versions were variously known as Money, Marbles, and Chalk, and Ann: An Affectionate Portrait. The Kennedy Center’s website is promoting its current iteration as simply Ann. As with many such productions, the hope is is that after its Washington tour, the play will find its way to the bright lights of Broadway’s Promised Land this spring. It’s a pretty good bet that it will.
Promoting the play’s run at The Grand in Galveston, Texas, that theater’s executive director, Maureen Patton urged audiences to “consider this warm, entertaining evening ‘continuing education’ on Texas mythology and Richards’ life teachings.”
Jan Jarboe Russell headlined the new play as possessing “hoot and heart,” noting that it “also was good to remember a time in Texas when politics wasn’t so full of feelings of rage and being fed-up, but a force that pulled people together and was … actually fun.”
The Chicago Sun-Times’ Hedy Weiss describes the show—now concluding its run in that city—as a “bristlingly smart, good ol’ girl funny, wholly captivating, self-penned one-woman show, now in its pre-Broadway edition at the Bank of America Theatre.”
But it’s not only reviewers, it seems, who are appreciating this new play. Richards’ colorful life story, as portrayed by Taylor in her play’s regional productions, has already moved theater audiences wherever it’s appeared. It’s “even inspiring young people who never heard of [Ann] before,” with its narrative that’s “full of laughter, full of thoughts, and sometimes full of tears,” says Taylor.
This kind of audience reaction hasn’t surprised the playwright at all. “[Richards] was profoundly fair, tremendously inclusive, and proved it by giving numerous political appointments to women, Hispanics, blacks, gays, and even some Republicans,” Taylor notes. “She always did what she said she was going to do.” As Taylor observes with some disdain the economy-sapping antics of today’s hyper-partisan politicians, she’s come to admire Richards’ plainspoken approach to government even more. Audiences seem to like it, too.
For Holland Taylor, Ann Richards was quite simply a “great, unique individual, best known really for her persona, not her politics. She’s the kind of patriot that should end up with her portrait carved on Mt. Rushmore,” says Taylor. “Actually, I think she deserves a Mt. Rushmore of her own.”