The AFI Documentary Festival opened in Washington, DC on June 18th with a selection that proved both informative and entertaining: Holbrook/Twain: An American Odyssey.

holbrook-twain-an-american-odysseyI’ve been living under a rock, so I wasn’t all that aware that actor Hal Holbrook has been playing Mark Twain on stage for 60 years. SIXTY YEARS!!!! At 89, the guy is a scholar and a stud.

Holbrook’s late wife Dixie Carter (of Designing Women fame) apparently pushed, prodded and persuaded the making of the film, which explores how Holbrook came to embody all things Twain and maintain the persona even while pursuing other acting endeavors on the stage, as well as in movies and television.

The documentary benefits from a treasure trove of material, including plenty of bits from Holbrook’s enduring yet ever-changing one-man show, Mark Twain Tonight! and his (obsessively) extensive handwritten notes and newspaper clippings. It interweaves ‘historical’ footage with recent stuff. The documentary is in black and white, but its portrait of Holbrook is anything but. It exposes his wit, talent and smarts, as well as his failings- especially as a father – and his heartbreak over the loss of Dixie Carter. Fans of Mark Twain (aka Samuel Clemens) are sure to get a kick out of this film and Holbrook’s life-long obsession with the acclaimed author and humorist. As for Hal Holbrook, you can’t help but appreciate the guy’s work ethic – and his satiric edge. So if you’re into documentaries, keep an eye out for Holbrook/Twain: An American Odyssey.

We were graced with Hal Holbrook's presence, too.  What an amazingly accomplished actor!
We were graced with Hal Holbrook’s presence, too. What an amazingly accomplished actor!

Arty Chick’s Take:

I was equally smitten with Holbrook and his Twain, but was particularly interested in the ways in which he was able to tailor each performance to the venue, even presenting a biting Twain piece about silent lies to an audience at Ole Miss during the height of the civil rights movement. Way beyond giving me a great admiration for Holbrook as an actor and as a provocateur, the film made me want to head to the library for a heavy dose of Twain. I had not realized the depth of his writings. That Holbrook has memorized and is able to contextualize so much of it is astounding, apparently even to the Twain scholars. I’d recommend this film to a very wide audience. It is truly eye-opening.

And here is a little piece from the opening night from AFI.

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