Holbrook/Twain: An American Odyssey, a documentary about the six-decade run of Hal Holbrook’s Mark Twain Tonight!, will be released on Tuesday, November 19th. As of today, the film is available for pre-order from iTunes.
The majority of the film, directed by Scott Teems, was shot a few years ago. It centers on a performance Holbrook gave on his 90th birthday, in 2015, to a sold-out crowd in Hartford, Connecticut, where Twain was a long-time resident.
But while Holbrook/Twain does feature numerous, elegantly-framed excerpts from that performance and others, it’s primary focus is not the show, but the showman. Teems previously directed Holbrook in the 2009 independent film, That Evening Sun, which won eleven festival prizes, including two at SXSW. It is clear that what interests him is Holbrook’s mastery of his craft and the costs of pursuing that mastery. We understand Holbrook foremost as a actor, albeit one who has been indelibly shaped by the unique experience of playing one of America’s most iconic historical figures, continuously, for his entire adult life.
Holbrook began staging Twain’s “An Encounter with an Interviewer” as part of a variety show which he and his first wife toured straight out of college at Denison. The show was seen by James “Bim” Pond, then editor of Program magazine. Pond’s father was one of Twain’s booking agents and, having inherited the family business upon his father’s death in 1903, Bim would certainly have been familiar with the public clamor for all things Twain, even deep into the 20th century. When the Holbrooks settled in New York City, looking for more stable employment to support their family, it was Pond who suggested a solo show as Twain. When Holbrook flinched, the editor said, simply, “I think you could get bookings.” The Hartford show from Holbrook/Twain was the 2,301st staging of Mark Twain Tonight!
Holbrook’s commercial success was not without sacrifices, from getting assaulted in the South by those who saw his interpretation of Twain as implicitly sympathetic to the Civil Rights Movement to estranging himself from wives and children. Teems approaches his subject without caution, drawing poignantly, for instance, from an unvarnished interview with Holbrook’s son. Nor is Holbrook himself guarded when talking about the costs of his choices. The result is an unexpectedly intimate portrait. We see Holbrook’s life mimicing Twain’s, as his personal losses are weighted with the continual expectation to make people laugh as they have never laughed before. But we also see Hal Holbrook without the white suit and wig, an artistic force entirely distinct from his most famous role, who has earned the highest esteem of his peers, both actors like Sean Penn and Emile Hirsch, and scholars like Shelley Fisher Fishkin and Barbara Snedecor.
It’s hard to imagine there will ever be anything remotely like Mark Twain Tonight!, a show that was born amidst the last vestiges of vaudeville and somehow remains relevant to students born after 9/11. It’s cheap to say this is a testament to Twain. Twain’s burlesque jokes are greeted to scornful silence when I read them in my classrooms. Nearly half-a-century after his death, Twain caught another break when Holbrook crossed paths with Bim Pond. One cannot overestimate how different each of their legacies might have been without the other.
View of trailer for Holbrook/Twain: An American Odyssey above and Pre-Order from iTunes before November 19th.