We gathered around André Gregory like children eagerly assembling around the librarian for story hour. André perched in a picture window inside Winsome Brown and Claude Arpels’ fashionable Tribeca apartment. Behind him, the sun was setting over the Hudson River. On the wall hung a series of striking self-portraits by Gregory.
We were gathered in Tribeca with some of André’s closest friends and supporters to hear the legendary raconteur tell stories. The event was also a party for Before and After Dinner, a new documentary about Gregory directed by his wife, filmmaker Cindy Kleine. The genuine affection the guests felts for André was palpable as he moved around the room embracing old friends and asking questions of acquaintances and strangers. The passion, empathy, and sincerity Gregory radiates on screen also comes through in person, a fact that is quite remarkable when you consider André’s personal history.
“How many of you have seen the film The Shining?” he asked. “That’s a documentary about my childhood,” André said with a laugh. And he wasn’t kidding.
On May 18, 2009, the opening day of Wally Shawn’s Grasses of a Thousand Colors in London, which was directed by Gregory, André received a disturbing phone call from his brother, who informed him of a document implicating their prominent Jewish father as an economic spy for Hitler. The next day, André came down with a severe case of shingles.
As André told us that evening in Tribeca, most people would have balked at receiving word that their father was potentially a Nazi collaborator, but in his case, the disturbing revelation, while unexpected, was not unbelievable. The quest to confirm or disprove this shocking story would become the centerpiece of Kleine’s film. The filmmaker’s marriage to André placed her in a unique position to capture intimate stories about Gregory’s dysfunctional childhood—stories that took on new meaning in light of his brother’s discovery.
As Klein’s documentary reveals, André’s parents were “Jews who forgot to tell their kids they were Jews.” Fugitives from Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany, the family was on the last ship to leave England before the war began. Looking back, André’s family was often one step ahead of the Nazis, a fact that raises further questions about his father’s connections with Hitler. The fact that Hitler’s foreign minister also visited his parents’ home was another worrying piece of the family puzzle.
During our evening together, André described his father as “non-human”—a manic depressive with “no empathy.” His parents would leave André and his brother in the care of a babysitter, then disappear. Instead of returning home as scheduled or sending home news of their whereabouts or travel plans, they would send money. Once, when André’s mother was passing a woman and child in the street, she declared, “What a beautiful baby!” The woman answered, “But Madam, he’s yours.” “My Nanny saved me,” Gregory told us.
His happiest times were in Beverly Hills in the 1940s, where the family lived in a lavish house with a plastic driveway lit from below. André remembers Charlie Chaplin visiting regularly. One afternoon Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo played tennis in his backyard, a doubles match against Thomas Mann and Errol Flynn. According to rumors, his mother had an affair with Errol Flynn.
“I know when I die, you’ll dance on my grave,” André’s mother once chided the family. “It was so true,” Gregory explained, “no one knew what to say.”
Gregory grew up in an overly formal household where people said horrible things about the people they loved most. As a child, André was never touched, hugged, or shown any sort of physical affection. An attractive girl once kissed the teenage Gregory in a graveyard and he fainted in shock.
It was his desire to heal his parent’s unhappiness and dysfunction that honed his role as the family caretaker, a role he has also assumed within his theatre company. “If you go into the theater,” his mother once told him, “your father will have a heart attack. He’s already had one.” As a boy, Gregory longed to have a magic wand to fix his father. “I wanted to persuade him that his life was really beautiful,” Gregory reveals in an intimate moment in Before and After Dinner. “You have such a nice life…wonderful friends…you’re so well off.”
Most people know André Gregory through his critically acclaimed film My Dinner with André (or, from the other end of the film spectrum, as the warden who has his eye gouged out by Wesley Snipes in Demolition Man). Gregory has had numerous film acting roles. He played John the Baptist in Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ and appeared in Woody Allen’s Celebrity and Peter Weir’s The Mosquito Coast. Louis Malle, Wallace Shawn, and Gregory also collaborated on the film Vanya on 42nd Street with Julianne Moore. Kleine told me that Gregory is frequently recognized on the streets of New York, but his celebrity is of a peculiar sort. Those who recognize him from My Dinner with André often approach Gregory “with gracious awe, the way one approaches a great rabbi or teacher.”
But Gregory’s impact on the art world extends far beyond these high-profile acting roles. In the theatre world, André Gregory is revered as a master storyteller, an influential teacher, and as a visionary director who believes that the role of theatre is to awaken the audience and make them question themselves and the world around them (no small goal). For Gregory, this means keeping audiences small and venues intimate. “What happens in these small spaces because of their intimacy,” Kleine explained, “is that audience members become active participants in the ritual being performed.” In the same way that chamber music loses its impact in an oversized concert hall, live theatre can also lose its effectiveness if a venue is too large.
From the very beginning of his career, Gregory had a fresh and personal approach to theatre. Deeply influenced by both Brecht and Tarkovsky, he is one of the original creators of the regional and off-Broadway theatre movements. His legendary, Obie-winning production of Alice in Wonderland played in New York for seven years. “People screamed during the play like a roller coaster,” Shawn told Noah Baumbach in an interview. It was “thrilling.” Alice toured the U.S., Middle East, and Europe and was eventually made into a book in collaboration with photographer Richard Avedon.
Gregory often says that Alice in Wonderland is a “portrait of his own childhood.” Alice is born into this terrifying, insane world and is simply traveling around trying to make sense of things, but she never gets a direct answer to her questions.
Kleine’s film gives us a rare look at how a childhood can shape the creative life of an artist. But be forewarned, this is not a traditional documentary. To better understand Kleine’s approach, it’s useful to revisit My Dinner with André, for Before and After Dinner is really a companion piece to the much-discussed, art-house hit from 1981. If My Dinner with Andre gives its audience a glimpse of “André the Character,” Before and After Dinner addresses the gap between fiction and reality by giving us a taste of “André Gregory the Man.” Both films ask versions of the same question: “Who exactly is André Gregory?”
Directed by French filmmaker Louis Malle, My Dinner with André was a radical concept in 1981 and remains so today. The entire 110-minute movie depicts a conversation between André Gregory and his friend Wally Shawn during dinner in a chic Manhattan restaurant. The two friends talk about experimental theater, love, work, money, spirituality, and the nature of life itself. There are no flashbacks depicted on screen, only verbal exchanges like these between André and Wally:
André: What does it do to us, Wally, living in an environment where something as massive as the seasons or winter or cold, don’t in any way affect us? I mean, were animals after all. I mean… what does that mean? I think that means that instead of living under the sun and the moon and the sky and the stars, we’re living in a fantasy world of our own making.
Wally: Yeah, but I mean, I would never give up my electric blanket, Andre. I mean, because New York is cold in the winter. I mean, our apartment is cold! It’s a difficult environment. I mean, our life is tough enough as it is. I’m not looking for ways to get rid of a few things that provide relief and comfort. I mean, on the contrary, I’m looking for more comfort because the world is very abrasive. I mean, I’m trying to protect myself because, really, there’s these abrasive beatings to be avoided everywhere you look!
André: But, Wally, don’t you see that comfort can be dangerous? I mean, you like to be comfortable and I like to be comfortable too, but comfort can lull you into a dangerous tranquility.
For six months Shawn and Gregory met in a room at NYU to work on the project. Each session began with André telling Wally a story. By the time they ended these regular meetings, the typed transcript from their conversations was over 1500 single-spaced pages. Shawn spent more than a year wading through the transcript identifying central themes that could be used in the screenplay. From these themes, he crafted a three-hour script comprised entirely of fragments from his real conversations with Gregory. Malle, Shawn, and Gregory then edited the script down to a two hour film. Malle was able to trim My Dinner with André down to 110 minutes in the editing room.
They shot the film in the then-abandoned Jefferson Hotel in Richmond, Virginia. Because heating the immense building was too expensive, the crew ran heaters in between takes. Gregory says he wore long-johns and kept an electric blanket on his lap during the shoot (a funny irony in light of the above dialogue).
If it’s been a while since you’ve seen My Dinner with André, I encourage you to watch it again, for it’s one of those classic pieces of cinema that only improves and expands with time. It’s one of the few films I know that investigates the cinematic potential of language. Gregory discusses this idea further with Noah Baumbach in a DVD interview for Criterion. In the late 70s and early 80s, we were living in a time “when no one was talking…in depth. It was all…very superficial. If I had one goal with this movie, it was to hopefully activate people to talk again.”
For Gregory, My Dinner with André “is as big as Lawrence of Arabia or Cleopatra” because the film takes the viewer to Tibet and the Polish forest, but each viewer sees his own Tibet, his own Polish forest.” My Dinner with André is a radical piece of cinema because it isn’t doing everything for you as a viewer. Instead, it’s activating your imagination. “If you like the movie,” Gregory explains to Baumbach, “it’s waking you up, which was one of the intentions of the movie.”
“The film is about men, because men tend to be so hidden,” Gregory adds. “And Wally is hiding behind silence. I’m hiding behind words. The progress of the movie is that Wally is able to come out and start revealing and I’m able to to listen…These were radical actions as characters.”
In Baumbach’s interview with Wally Shawn, the playwright agrees with his friend’s description. “The film is about being asleep and waking up. Are you just crawling through your life like a mole…? Are you not observing what’s going on in your own life and not letting your consciousness speak to you?” Shawn is also quick to point out what is NOT overtly stated in the film: political consciousness. My Dinner with André depicts “two upper-class guys spending hours talking about life, while others are working and suffering,” says Shawn. “I wanted to kill that side of myself by making the film because that guy is totally motivated by fear and he’s defending himself and he is the bourgeois human being.”
In his conversation with Baumbach, Gregory says that there was one question that initially vexed him during the making of the film: Who exactly am I? In My Dinner with André he is playing a character based on himself. But even in real life the André that his doctor sees is completely different from the André his wife knows. Gregory’s breakthrough came when he got the idea for using four different voices in the film:
1. André the Peter Brook theatre guru
2. André the off-the-wall, spacey, dilettante rich kid
3. André the spiritual used car salesman
4. And André when he is being sincere, as seen in the last part of the film
If Malle’s movie gives us these four sides of André Gregory the character, Cindy Kleine’s documentary Before and After Dinner fills in the gaps with intimate glimpses of André the loving husband, the loyal friend, the searching son, the patient director, the encouraging father figure. In many ways the films are two sides of one coin, or of one man in this case.
Kleine’s dual role as wife and director gives us a unique perspective on André. We see him in some of his most intimate moments—making breakfast, bending over a steam inhaler, frolicking naked in a hot tub with a puffy shower cap on his head. It’s hard to imagine that such moments could have been captured by anyone other than his wife. To see a public figure letting relaxing and letting his guard down is a scarce thing in documentary film. Watching such scenes only confirms the impression I had upon meeting André in person: this is a man who has a passion for living, someone who appreciates life’s fragility. “He is a man who is not afraid to step into his own life,” says Kleine, “and is, therefore a rare and precious bird.”
Before and After Dinner is really a love story of sorts, for it captures something exceedingly uncommon in the movies: a happy marriage. “The only two films I can think of that depict happy marriages are Mrs. Miniver from 1942 and Mike Leigh’s Another Year,” Kleine told me over the phone this week. “But unhappy marriages…There are plenty of films about miserable relationships.”