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Raising Hell

Houston film producer helps bring Lone Star legend Molly Ivins to the big screen.

The story of the late Texas journalist Molly Ivins (pictured) is told in Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins, produced by Janice Engel, James Egan, and Carlisle Vandervoort.

“There are no second acts in American lives,” F. Scott Fitzgerald famously observed in his notes for The Last Tycoon.

But twelve years after her death in 2007, the firebrand progressive Texas journalist Molly Ivins is enjoying a spectacular renaissance.

Her feisty humor, fearless bravado, and trenchant political insights spring vividly to life in the new documentary RAISE HELL: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins. The film debuted in Houston, Austin, San Antonio, and Dallas on August 30. It opens nationally in October.

Carlisle Vandervoort, a lesbian and resident of the Houston Heights, has worked for the last seven years to help bring the film to fruition. She served as a producer on the film, along with two gay collaborators: Janice Engel, who wrote, directed, and produced the film; and James Egan, who also served as a producer.

RAISE HELL premiered to glowing reviews at the Sundance Film Festival in January. It won the Audience Award at South by Southwest in Austin in March, and went on to earn acclaim at film festivals across the country. This past summer, the film was picked up by Magnolia Pictures for national release.   

“It’s a rare documentary indeed that so expertly captures the singular essence of its subject. Ivins is restored to vivid and vital life—if not in the flesh, then in the mind and spirit,” wrote Marc Savlov of the film in the Austin Chronicle.

When Engel and Egan pitched Vandervoort on joining the team as a producer, they had a very specific need. “They didn’t speak Texan,” remembers Vandervoort, a native Houstonian who brings an innate understanding of Ivins’s world from her decades of living in the Lone Star State. “James is from Baltimore, and Janice is from Long Island.”

They gave Vandervoort 48 hours to decide if she wanted to participate.

“I called them the next day and said I’m in. My Texas pride suddenly welled up. I want to do a project about Molly Ivins. She was a Texan, she was progressive, and she was liberal. Yes, I want to be involved in this!”

Vandervoort, who is 62, and Ivins shared many similar life experiences. They were both born children of privilege in Texas, grew up in River Oaks, and attended Houston’s elite St. John’s School. Both of their families were active in the oil and gas business. And they both diverged dramatically from the more traditional paths envisioned for them by their parents.

But Vandervoort came by her independent streak honestly. Her grandmother, Mary Porter Vandervoort, was a co-founder of the Junior League. “She was on the Houston ISD school board,” says Vandervoort. “She was what you called a ‘limousine liberal.’” Her grandmother helped to lead efforts to integrate Houston’s schools in the 1960s, and as thanks for her efforts, she received hate mail and had a cross burned on her yard.

In the film, Ivins observes wryly that at St. John’s, she felt like “a Clydesdale among thoroughbreds.” Vandervoort, who attended St. John’s for twelve years, also felt like an outsider there.

“I never felt that I was cool enough,” she comments. “When I was nine, I knew there was something different about me. I knew that I was probably like my gay godfather, even though I didn’t understand what that meant.

“When I was 12, I heard a schoolmate use the term ‘lesbo’ in the locker room. In the context when she said it, I knew that I was that. I turned bright red. And I took off to a corner of a dressing room, and I knew that was not good.” 

After graduating from St. John’s, she enrolled in Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

“The first girl I ever made out with was a Tri Delta at Vanderbilt. We went through sorority rush together,” she recalls. “She flirted with me, and I recognized what was happening. That was the first time I was ever kissed by a girl.

“We saw each other for a while. She dropped me for my roommate, and broke my heart.”

Coming Out as a Debutante—and a Lesbian

Vandervoort went on to join the Pi Beta Phi sorority. In 1976, she came out as a debutante at the Houston Country Club to please her paternal grandmother. “I was uncomfortable all the way through it,” she said of the experience. “I knew that this was not my deal because I knew that I was gay.”

She finished her undergraduate studies at the University of Texas, majoring in radio, film, and TV.

“My first semester at UT, these women came from the gay and lesbian center to speak to my sociology class,” she recalls. “I thought that everyone could read ‘I’m a big queer’ stamped on my forehead.  But I was so excited that these women were there.

“I made an appointment to go and meet them. I made sure that no one saw me go into the center. It was a step to come out to myself. The women sat down and explained to me, ‘Here’s what’s going on, and you’re going to be OK.’ Thank God for the gay and lesbian center!

“During my final year at UT, I saw this woman walk by me on the street, and I thought, ‘I need to know her.’ Then she ended up working on my film crew for our student film, and we were together for six years. We moved to New York together in the fall of 1981. 

“We lived in Tribeca when you could walk down the middle of Broadway at three in the morning and no one was there,” Vandervoort recalls. “I saw Madonna open for Run DMC at the Palladium.”

She began to build a career producing TV commercials for Macy’s.

Vandervoort had been close to her mother, Camille Haynes. “At age 25, my mother asked me, ‘Just what is your relationship with Lynn?’ I told her, ‘It’s more than a friendship.’ She asked me again, ‘What is your relationship?’ So then I told her.” Her mother struggled with the news of her daughter’s sexual orientation, but eventually went to PFLAG. Over the years, the two did therapy together and worked to forge a deeply loving relationship built on mutual acceptance.

Touring the Country, Reading Feminist Erotica

In 1985, Vandervoort relocated to Los Angeles, where she lived for twelve years. She worked as a public-relations professional, and began exploring her passion for art by staging artistic outdoor “earthworks” installations. She eventually completed an MFA degree in sculpture from Claremont Graduate University.

In 1997, she relocated back to Houston, settling in the Heights and serving on the board of DiverseWorks, Houston’s alternative arts space. She began to socialize with artists, and became deeply engaged in the city’s artistic community.

“In 2002, I did a writing course for feminist porn taught by a woman named Liz Belile. I wrote three pieces, and Liz chose two of them to be featured in a collection called Gynomite,” Vandervoort recalls. “We went around the country, and I was reading my erotica. We were doing readings in small towns. It was very apparent then that we were being of service because sexual liberation had not come to a lot of these people—even straight people. 

“They were hearing things out of our mouths that they had thought about, but never heard spoken. I had a woman in her sixties who came up to me and said that she had never heard anything like what I had read, but that it was part of her interior life. And it was liberating for her.”

Vandervoort also discovered a passion for beekeeping, which has evolved into a deeply spiritual process for her. Over the years, she began to manage the beehives of a dozen friends. “For me, keeping bees is an active prayer; it’s a lot like meditation,” she observes. “You have to get really quiet and really focused. When I open up a beehive, I see God in the hive.”

Reaching People through Humor

In 2012, she began to work in earnest on RAISE HELL, which paints a complex portrait of Ivins, her contentious relationship with her conservative father, her professional triumphs and controversies, and her long struggle with alcoholism.

“From the get-go, we knew that a hagiography of Molly Ivins would be incredibly boring,” Vandervoort notes.

The film encountered some hurtles at several points in its production. Engel, Egan, and Vandervoort had known each other for over two decades, and this bond of trust enabled them to persevere through the challenges.

A milestone came in 2015 when a Kickstarter campaign was launched.

“Our goal was $75,000, and we blew past that in our first ten days,” says Vandervoort. Several of Ivins’ friends, including the writer Anne Lamott and the actress Morgan Fairchild, promoted the campaign to their followers on social media, resulting in a surge of donations. “We grossed $120,000 from the campaign.”

That same year, another breakthrough came when the filmmakers finally secured a candid, emotional interview with Ivins’ brother Andy, with whom they had long sought to speak. The filmmakers were also able to interview Rachel Maddow, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, Cecile Richards, and Dan Rather.

Following the 2016 presidential election, Molly Ivins’ story became even more relevant in the eyes of Vandervoort and Engel as the resistance movement took flight. “Molly Ivins’ voice is needed now more than ever to stir us to action,” says Vandervoort. “She knew that humor was the way to reach people so they could truly listen.”

The documentary captures Ivins’ prescience on several key problems plaguing American democracy. A decade before the rise of Bernie Sanders as a national figure, she identified the emerging crisis of income inequality. She also called out the corrupting influence of money in the American political system in the early 2000s. “My take is that American politics at this point is corrupt,” she told one television interviewer. “What we have at this point is a system of legalized bribery.”

She also aptly observed, “Polarizing people is a good way to win elections and to wreck the country.”

Returning to Her Alma Mater as an Out, Gay Woman

This past summer, Vandervoort was invited to screen RAISE HELL for the students at her alma mater who were members of the St. John’s Film Club. “It was glorious,” she recalls of the experience. “Having graduated in 1975 and having not been comfortable in coloring outside the lines, it was outrageously fantastic to come back there as an out gay woman.

“The film showed those students that you don’t have to be a conformist to have a rich, fantastic life and contribute to other people’s lives,” Vandervoort notes. “The kids loved the film, and their parents were there, asking lots of questions.”

She also spent time with a straight, biracial, Muslim female student who served on the school’s Unity Council.

Vandervoort’s voice broke with emotion as she recalled how deeply that meeting touched her. “The sixteen-year-old gay girl inside of me was able to thank the straight sixteen-year-old girl currently on the Unity Council for having the back of gay women like me,” she recalled, “because no one was there for me when I was a teenager at St. John’s.”

This article appears in the September 2019 edition of OutSmart magazine.

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Andrew Edmonson

Andrew Edmonson has written about the arts for the Houston Chronicle, OutSmart, The Houston Voice, and Houston Ballet News. He won the Award of Special Merit from the Texas Chapter of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association.
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