Shaking It Up: The Life and Times of Liz Carpenter (2024)

SXSW Film Festival 2024

Written by:
Andrew Osborne
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While the historical-clips-plus-talking-heads style of this documentary may be conventional, its subject was anything but: namely FLOTUS Lady Bird Johnson’s indomitable press secretary, Mary Elizabeth Sutherland Carpenter, better known as Liz (who never met a glass ceiling that could hold her back and who passed in 2010 at the age of 89 after a cheerful stretch of semi-retirement in Austin, Texas, where she spent many a night hosting star-studded soirees and hot tub parties).

Indeed, one of the themes of this high-spirited tribute by Carpenter’s daughter, Christy and her co-director, Abby Ginzberg is that Texas women descended from female ancestors who typically considered themselves equal partners with the men in the communities they established together, thus making so many of them natural leaders in the ongoing American struggle for gender equality.

For example, in addition to working for Lady Bird (in a White House role that had never existed before), Liz Carpenter earned the respect of the male-dominated D.C. press corps and that of the first lady’s husband, Lyndon, in high-pressure situations like crafting the latter’s first public statement on Air Force One directly after the assassination of JFK.

In priceless interview footage, Carpenter refers to the short speech as “the most important 50 words I ever wrote” — yet despite the gravity of that particular moment, the only time she chokes up during the film’s whirlwind tour of her remarkable life occurs when she discusses her role in the political campaign to elect Ann Richards as the second of only two female governors to hold the office in Texas since the founding of the state in 1845.

And while that particular milestone occurred in the ’90s, the arc of Carpenter’s tireless career (including her 1970s efforts on behalf of the Equal Rights Amendment, famously opposed by Phyllis ” a woman gets married [to] be supported by her husband while caring for her children at home” Schlafly) seems especially timely and relevant in light of the GOP’s 2024 decision to have their response to Joe Biden’s State of the Union delivered by a mother in a kitchen — all of which infuses the film’s past voices and present-day recollections with the live-wire energy of a vital ongoing conversation.

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