Film Review: André Gregory: Before and After Dinner

The rich life and world of a true theatre artist, seen through the eyes of an adoring (if somewhat aggressive) wife.

His name is one of the rare, remaining ones that is still whispered in hushed tones of awe and recognition in theatre circles. Since gaining major recognition in 1970 for his radically avant-garde staging of Alice in Wonderland, André Gregory has been an integral, important part of the New York theatre world. He continues to be active, acting and directing, specifically those infamous years-long explorations of classic plays by the masters in intimate rehearsal spaces, like his own living room. (Vanya on 42nd Street was the triumphant filmed record of his Chekhov project.)

In her documentary André Gregory: Before and After Dinner, his wife, Cindy Kleine, captures this tireless artist at work and at genial, rusticated rest, and this time the crucial play in question is Ibsen’s The Master Builder. The “Dinner” in the film’s title refers of course to My Dinner with Andre, the ecstatically received 1981 Louis Malle movie which so memorably teamed him with Wallace Shawn, just a couple of white guys sitting around and talking. Shawn, along with numerous other garrulous, entertaining Gregory intimates, appears prominently in the doc, particularly as he is essaying Ibsen’s title character, and clips from their film are shown here, presenting them in their not-so-dewy youth.

It’s a pleasant, warm portrait—with maybe a bit too much of Kleine’s personal history, including a strutting montage of her every past lover—which presents Gregory as the gentlest and most theatrically prescient of gurus. He’s a blessedly fabulous raconteur—not above “printing the legend”—with a dry, literate wit, which Kleine must have given heavenly thanks for every morning of her shoot. He describes his childhood, with his parents “like two insane rulers of a little Balkan country.” For all his artistic aspirations, however, he is not above making a buck, and he ruefully refers to the character he played in Stallone’s Demolition Man as “an evil homosexual villain who has his eye gouged out by an ice pick.” (A clip from the opus is shown, revealing Gregory camping it up shamelessly.)

The doc is revealing in a number of ways—at one point Gregory is even shown full-frontally in all his near 80-year-old glory. A central mystery of Gregory’s life—and of this film—is the question of his Jewish father’s Nazi involvement. Suspecting him of being an economic spy under Hitler who managed to escape Europe, country by country, just before Nazi invasions, Gregory consults various historians, busily researching the issue in foreign libraries. This adds a vital injection of drama to what otherwise would be full-stop hagiography, with Gregory’s horror at the possible truth intriguingly outmatched by his resigned acceptance of it, saying that this would explain his father’s often scary, cold and bipolar behavior.

Gregory’s life has been a rich tapestry of experience, including a fascinating Beverly Hills childhood, as he recalls a (perhaps mythic) tennis foursome at his home that consisted of Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Thomas Mann and Errol Flynn. Kleine‘s film shows that, along with his refulgent past, his present is equally full—one of those enviable and highly deserved Manhattan existences studded with culture and simpatico, successful friends—and he is some damned good company.