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AFI DOCS opened June 18 with Mark Twain Hal Holbrook film at D.C.'s Newseum

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'Holbrook/Twain: An American Odyssey'


American Film Institute's AFI DOCS Festival opened June 18 in Washington with a stirring documentary "Holbrook/Twain: An American Odyssey" illuminating the brilliance of Mark Twain as well as Hal Holbrook, who has portrayed him for 60 years in a Tony®- and Emmy®-winning one-man show.

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Holbrook, 89, told the audience at D.C.'s Newseum, "I never dreamed in 100 years this would happen...I just can't thank people enough for coming together and putting this film together."

Its filmmaker Scott Teems was equally modest. "I feel kind of like an interloper. It's my first documentary film...It's a noble calling." Teems made the black and white film during a five-year period at the insistence of Holbrook's third wife, Dixie Carter ("Designing Women"), who died in 2010.

Holbrook's "Mark Twain Tonight!" is believed to be the longest-running one-man show in history. Holbrook has performed it more than 2,250 times, in all 50 states, in 20 countries, and for five U.S. Presidents.

The documentary traces the odyssey not only of the show, but also of Holbrook the actor and the individual. Teems seamlessly interweaves Holbrook as Twain with Holbrook as himself.

Also interspersed smoothly within this are praise from fellow actors including Sean Penn and Martin Sheen; from literary scholars representing PEN/Faulkner and Stanford, terming Holbrook "the greatest Twain scholar"; and not-quite-praise from his two children, who note their difficult early relationship with their actor father.

The Washington audience most appreciated Holbrook as Twain skewering Washington, politicians, and, well, the entire human race. It's all as timely today as it was in the late 1860s when Twain began lecturing.

  • "The contents of a politician's brain could be exchanged with a pie...the pie would be worse off."
  • "The silent lie requires no art. Simply keep quiet. But that's timid and shabby."
  • "I wonder if God invented man because he was disappointed with the monkey...Is the human race a joke? If we are the noblest work of God, what is the ignoblest?" Holbrooke commented, "Twain nailed us as human beings."
  • "Truth has no place in Washington." (Guffaws, of course.)
  • "I have a higher moral standard than George Washington. He could not tell a lie. I can, but I won't."

Nor, it seems, can Holbrook, who's also quite the philosopher.

  • "You spend your life searching for love, kindness, for things never given to you when you were young." His parents abandoned him and his two siblings when Hal was 9 years old. "I never had any comfort when I was a kid. No one ever hugged me." He finally found deep love, acceptance, and support from his wife Dixie Carter and her family. Holbrook fights back tears as he applies Twain's comment about his own wife, "Wherever she was, there was Eden."
  • "I had to learn, in life and as an actor, to stop disguising myself...It was always very difficult for me." That's why he always loved makeup, he self-analyzes.
  • "I have to do something that means something to people. Otherwise, what am I doing out there standing in front of people -- what am I, a freak? No, I want to send a message to people...get them to think a bit." That, he certainly does, in "Mark Twain Tonight!" and in "Holbrook/Twain".
  • When his show opened off-Broadway in 1959, he was "scared out of my wits...I was helpless." Holbrook adds, "I wanted it to be good, but not take over my life...It obliterated me..Mark Twain was the one knew me."

This insightful, incisive documentary shines a bright spotlight on Holbrook, bringing him out from the giant shadow of Twain.

For more info and tickets: "Holbrook/Twain: An American Odyssey", next showing, June 22, 4:15 P.M., AFI Silver Theatre, Silver Spring, Maryland. AFI DOCS Festival, through June 22.