Louis Malle’s 1981 film “My Dinner with Andre” was about as unlikely an art film hit as one could imagine. A film that consisted of a pair of downtown theater mavens talking about their art and their lives in a restaurant for nearly two hours ... well, it just didn’t sound like a blockbuster.
Of course, Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn weren’t just any two theater guys, and the talk was uncommonly rich and entertaining. The result was not merely a surprising box-office success and Malle’s best film, but the transfiguration of the duo, Gregory in particular, from cult heroes of Off Broadway into gurus for a whole raft of spiritual “seekers” in and out of the theater.
Everything in that paragraph is essentially true, yet it sells both men short.
Gregory was a key figure in the evolving experimental theater scene of the ’60s and ’70s, and Shawn was about to emerge as a distinctive playwriting voice; the success of Malle’s film made it possible for each to carve out a “day job” in mainstream film and television that paid the bills.
After the film, Gregory lost his first wife to cancer, met documentary filmmaker Cindy Kleine (“Phyllis and Harold”), 24 years his junior, and married her. Inevitably, given that her primary subject is family, Kleine felt the urge to make a film about her husband, perhaps as a way of staving off the inexorable decrescence and decline that she would have to witness as he grew older quicker. The result, “Andre Gregory: Before and After Dinner,” opens theatrically April 3.
The distance between Kleine and Gregory can be expressed not only in years but also in cultures. As the filmmaker makes explicit, her upbringing was the classic experience of Jewish Americans in the post-World War II suburbs: membership in the local synagogue and Hadassah chapter, the usual round of bar mitzvahs and weddings, loud, boisterous family meals and the kitsch that accompanied such a life.
By contrast, Gregory’s family life is downright mysterious, and the mystery is one of the key subtexts of the film. His parents came to the States in 1939 on the very last ocean liner to leave England before the bombs started falling. His father and uncle had mysterious jobs at I.G. Farben in 1933 and, it is claimed in a book by the distinguished economic historian Harold James, may have worked as spies for Hitler and Nazi Finance Minister Hjalmar Schacht. It is alleged that they were dispatched to wreck the French economy: one more disturbing element in Gregory’s profoundly upsetting childhood.
He recalls a typical upper-class Mitteleuropa upbringing in which “you never touched your children”; it left him starved of human contact. He was raised by a loyal nanny who remained with the family until his brother Alex was an adult. His parents were, Gregory says early in the film, “the kind of people who changed their name from Josefowitz to Gregory and ‘forgot’ to tell the children they were Jews.” At some point, he must have found out for himself,because all of Gregory’s weddings were Jewish (including the two ceremonies uniting him with Kleine). And, for all of his fascination with and dabbling in other spiritual traditions, he is very clearly still attached to Judaism quite directly.
But what of the accusation against his father and his uncle? Gregory was sufficiently upset by this apparent revelation almost 80 years after the fact that it caused him to suffer a severe bout of shingles. As he and Kleine agree early in the film, the only way to deal with it is to enlist their own researchers, whose reports are interspersed through the film.
As for Dad, Gregory remembers him as “so absent,” a non-presence in the children’s lives except for rare occasions when the older man’s bipolar condition would plunge him into black depressions. On some deep level, as Gregory himself points out in the film, his theater work as a director noted in particular for his nurturing of actors must be seen as a reaction against the cold and bizarre treatment he received from his parents. He calls his famous stage version of “Alice in Wonderland” a portrait of his childhood, with its “authoritarian parents who never give you an answer.”
It is when the subject turns to theater that the film is on its surest footing. As anyone who has seen “My Dinner with Andre” knows, Gregory and Shawn are a terrific double act, wise and intuitive when talking about theater; and Gregory takes to his work with the intensity of a shaman in a trance state, albeit as a somewhat more approachable figure. Throughout the film we see rehearsals of Gregory’s production of Shawn’s translation-adaptation of “The Master Builder.” It quickly becomes clear that the late Ibsen play is a surprisingly good match for their shared concerns of family-shattering narcissism and creative genius.
What is troubling about the film, though, is the intrusive presence of Kleine. Perhaps no filmmaker should be allowed to make a film about her spouse, although it is abundantly clear that few people know her subject better. But Kleine just can’t resist the occasional foolish joke, the inclusion of her own life experience before she met Gregory and allegedly comic asides that add little to our understanding of this man who is at once both remarkably straightforward and yet incredibly complicated.
The result is a film that is deeply felt and genuinely appreciative of its central figure, often revealing and surprisingly candid, but disappointing in its final effect. Still, if you have fond memories of the Malle film, you will want the update on Andre and Wally, and that is certainly worth the price of admission.
“Andre Gregory: Before and After Dinner,” a film by Cindy Kleine, opens on Wednesday, April 3 at Film Forum (209 W. Houston St.) for a two-week run. For information, call (212) 727-8110 or go to www.filmforum.org.