- Jonathan Tilove American-Statesman Staff
The title page on the screenplay for “Let Her Speak,” about Wendy Davis’ 2013 filibuster on the floor of the Texas Senate against regulations that would have dramatically reduced access to abortion in Texas, describes it as “based on a true story.”
But if the film that Sandra Bullock wants to star in, if she can find the right studio and director, comes to fruition and proves successful, it might, as motion pictures often do, flip that script: What its audience might come to believe to be the truth of what happened would be what they see on the screen.
“The so-called ‘based upon a true story’ — obviously you have to fit it into an hour and a half, two hours — there are going to be things left out; there are going to be things added for dramatic impact,” said state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, who was Davis’ best supporting actor on the Senate floor during that long, tumultuous June 25, 2013.
But, Watson said, “once it’s been on the screen, it will be, ‘that’s what happened,’ in people’s minds so that you hope they get as close to accurate as can be.”
Because of the polarizing nature of the abortion debate, a Wendy Davis biopic might reach an audience mostly predisposed to be in sympathy with her politics, which led from filibuster fame to a disastrous run governor in 2014.
“Seems to be a Hollywood divorced from reality deal,” said Matthew Dowd, the Austin-based ABC political analyst. “How does one make her a hero? She didn’t stop the law ultimately, and she ended up losing a race badly because of a poor campaign and awful message. She ain’t Ann Richards. The whole thing seems weird.”
But for Davis’ admirers, and perhaps an audience also drawn by Bullock, the film could play an essential role in defining “public memory” of the event.
Since their inception, said Claire Cisco King, chairwoman of the department of communication studies at Vanderbilt University, motion pictures have played a central role in forming public understanding of history.
“For a lot of people, films, even fictional films, become the only text by which they access history,” said King, who studies gender and sexuality.
“A lot of people who go to watch this film will be ones who already know the story, who already have pretty strong feelings about it but are seeking a kind of emotional experience when they watch the film — a catharsis,” King said.
Davis as hero
The news that Bullock was interested in portraying Davis in a film based on a screenplay by Mario Correa, a Chilean-born, Brooklyn-based playwright and television and film writer, broke in Variety last week.
For Davis, the making of “Let Her Speak” would be a matter of public redemption.
The nearly 13-hour filibuster made her an overnight sensation and ultimately the Democratic nominee for governor in 2014. But a crushing 20-point loss to Greg Abbott tarnished her image.
The American-Statesman obtained a copy of a draft of the screenplay, which has not yet been reviewed and critiqued by Davis. It portrays the former state senator from Fort Worth in the most heroic terms.
Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who was then a member of the Senate with his eyes on challenging then-Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst for re-election, is the villain of the script, which notes his name change and says his suspiciously thick head of hair “looks every bit the televangelist he should have been.”
At one point in the screenplay, as the filibuster wears on, Patrick tells Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, that Davis looks “tired as a boom town whore” — which doesn’t sound like something Patrick would say — and when Campbell shoots him a look, he replies, “What? It’s a folksy expression.”
The most complex character is Dewhurst, who is portrayed as torn between his own fundamental decency and respect for the traditions of the Texas Senate and what in retrospect was a wholly legitimate concern about a challenge from Patrick.
King said that many of those who would want to see such a movie “will already know about Davis’ tennis shoes, about her stiff back; they will want more details to attest to its authenticity.”
“Let Her Speak” provides the back story on how Davis, who would not be able to sit, lean, sip water or use the bathroom through the length of her filibuster, was fitted with a catheter the morning of the filibuster, which proved to be so awkward and painful that she had to be fitted with a more comfortable one by her 28-year-old physician, who rushed to the scene just in the nick of time.
The script also takes a dramatic line delivered by Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, who returned to the Senate floor after burying her father at the very end of the filibuster and famously asked, “At what point must a female senator raise her hands or her voice to be recognized over the male colleagues in the room?” and gives that line to Davis.
But King said the logic of film narrative wants to stay focused on the hero.
“You want to distill, instead of disperse, that energy,” King said.
“I think filmmakers bank on the fact that audiences will be moved enough by the totality of the experience to disregard and to forgive that kind of license,” King said.
King also said a film might transcend the polarization of the abortion issue if it can compellingly demonstrate Davis’ bootstraps, against-the-odds life story.
That was certainly Davis’ hope when she tried to take her filibuster celebrity and turn it into a gubernatorial campaign built on her “Texas story.”
It didn’t work then. But that was Texas politics, and this is Hollywood.