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'Holbrook/Twain: An American Odyssey': LAFF Review

Hal Holbrook Headshot - P 2012
Getty Images

The Bottom Line

This affecting doc cogently celebrates two American icons.

Venue

LA Film Fest

With

Hal Holbrook, Martin Sheen, Sean Penn, Emile Hirsch, Cherry Jones

Director

Scott Teems

Hal Holbrook's long history with Mark Twain is the focus of this doc, featuring interviews with Sean Penn and Martin Sheen.

One of the new sections at this year's LA Film Fest is called LA Muse, centering on films with a Los Angeles flavor. Most of the movies in the section are narrative features, but one documentary, Holbrook/Twain: An American Odyssey, stands out as one of the best films showcased in the entire festival. As the title suggests, the picture focuses on Hal Holbrook's long career portraying Mark Twain in his award-winning stage show, which also was filmed for television in the 1960s. While director Scott Teems gives a lot of attention to the Twain show, he also draws a sharp portrait of Holbrook himself, still going strong and performing around the country at the age of 89. The film stands as a loving tribute to an actor's selfless dedication to his craft. Public television will be a natural home for this documentary, but a limited theatrical run is not out of the question.

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Teems met Holbrook and his wife, Dixie Carter, (who died in 2010) when he directed both of them in the 2009 drama That Evening Sun. It was Carter who urged the director to make a documentary about the Twain show, which has been a part of Holbrook's life for more than 60 years. The actor began working on a Twain show with his first wife when they were college students, and Holbrook appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1956. Holbrook/Twain presents an excerpt from that show and other performances over the years, while it also incorporates telling interviews with Holbrook today and with other collaborators and admirers, including Martin Sheen (who co-starred with Holbrook in a landmark gay movie for television, That Certain Summer), Sean Penn (who directed Holbrook in 2007's Into the Wild) and Emile Hirsch (who appeared with him in that movie). Among the best interviews is one with Tony-winning actress Cherry Jones, who recalls seeing Mark Twain Tonight when she was just 13 years old.

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The film also includes backstage material of Holbrook preparing for stage performances in 2012. The editing of all these disparate elements is very shrewd. If there is one thing missing from the film, surprisingly, it is more footage of Holbrook as Twain. Some of the excerpts we see, of Twain dissecting American politics or religion, are so prescient that we long for an even fuller reminder of Twain's genius. At the same time, it would be hard to know what Teems could have sacrificed if he had beefed up these sections. Certainly, one would not have wanted to lose any of the interviews with Holbrook, which are remarkably candid. He tells vivid stories about his life on the road, including a visit to Oxford, Mississippi, during the desegregation crisis. But he also speaks forthrightly about his failures as a father, which derived from his own troubled childhood. And in one of the most moving sections, about his grief after the sudden death of Carter, he quotes Twain on the author's own long marriage: "Wherever she was, there was Eden."

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Teems chose to shoot the film in black-and-white, a decision that pays off in some beautiful images of Hannibal, Missouri, and Elmira, New York, (where the author is buried). Cinematographer Rodney Taylor makes a strong contribution, and the lovely score by Heather McIntosh never overpowers the action.

Director: Scott Teems

Producer: Laura D. Smith

Director of photography: Rodney Taylor

Editor: Anthony Innarelli

Music: Heather McIntosh

No rating, 94 minutes