In 1981, avant-garde theater director Andre Gregory collaborated with his friend Wallace Shawn and French filmmaker Louis Malle on an oddball project they called My Dinner with Andre.
Now enshrined as a classic — and one of the most-lampooned films in the history of American cinema — the movie is a talky two-hander in which Gregory (or someone very like him) gassed away about his globe-trotting adventures in spiritual enlightenment, while Shawn (or someone very like him) listened in disbelief, then grew entranced.
Public response tended to divide between those who thought My Dinner with Andre was a self-indulgent, slightly draggy documentary and those who read it as an elegantly crafted fiction about art and philosophical inquiry. Whether you sided with Shawn, the pragmatic urban iconoclast, or with Gregory, a beakily handsome, ambivalent New Ager with a million bizarre tales to tell, also made a difference.
Either way, Gregory, an instinctively seductive raconteur, came across as a genuinely curious man who also keeps talking so compulsively as to suck up all the air in the room. Without his feel for the absurd, he'd be unbearable. Radiant with the aura of assorted shamans who had mentored him on his travels, Gregory laughed endlessly at the madness of the world. Yet he seemed suspended between ecstasy and despair, his laughter tinged with barely suppressed rage.
Now, a documentary by filmmaker Cindy Kleine, who is also Gregory's second wife, suggests why. At 78 years old, and recently recovered from a serious illness, Gregory still talks to beat the band. But he's less logorrheic, and inevitably less luminous, than the vibrant man who chatted Shawn's ear off.
He's as genial as ever, and appears serenely untroubled by the fact that it has taken him 14 years (with breaks for journeyman acting parts in Hollywood schlock like Sylvester Stallone's Demolition Man) to rehearse a production of Ibsen's The Master Builder.
"I've spent my whole life in the theater creating big, happy families," he says. And if you're interested in creative process, or if you loved Vanya on 42nd Street — Malle's other film about Gregory's working method — there's a chunk of rehearsal footage in which the maestro showers his loyal actors (keep your eyes peeled for a rare glimpse of Julianne Moore underplaying) with benevolent encouragement to improvise. He claims to direct only with miniscule hand movements; no wonder it took a decade and a half to get the thing right.
But it's in his aggrieved revelations about his family that we see the tension between Gregory's premium on equanimity and the onstage explosions into splenetic rage of Shawn, his perennial leading man and alter ego.
Gregory's anger floats more freely these days, and much of it is directed at his long-dead parents, who were high-living, self-made Russian Jews anxious to assimilate and ravenous for social recognition. (Kleine implies that, during a brief sojourn in Beverly Hills, they paid to hang out with Hollywood luminaries like Errol Flynn and Marlene Dietrich).
Gregory dismisses his mother as "an iceberg" and makes no secret of his hatred for his "absent" father, a remote man prone to the manic depression that may also afflict his son, yet lacking in the creative opportunities that the Harvard-educated Gregory took as his birthright.
Faint praise comes late in the movie, when Gregory admits that his father "gave me an interesting life." (His parents' wealth must at least have helped, one can't help but think, as he spent years perfecting his plays and running around the world in search of truth.) But even in his own old age, not once does Gregory try to place himself in the shoes of two people who had fled Stalin's Russia and Hitler's Germany. Though he's candid enough to cop to his own ulterior motives, there's something chilling about Gregory's fanciful search for evidence that his father hung out with Nazis and was even an economic spy for the Fuhrer himself.
Like many neglected offspring, Gregory comes across as an eternal child himself, hooked on his capacity to enchant but rarely able to listen to anyone other than the actors over whom he has such power.
For all its suggestive title, Andre Gregory: Before and After Dinner is less a sequel to My Dinner with Andre than an update from the orchestra seats. Kleine is fairly new to full-length documentary, and this is a far more muscular film than her Phyllis and Harold, a labored exhumation of the rather banal secrets in her own parents' long, unhappy marriage.
An earthy, likable woman 24 years Gregory's junior, Kleine clearly loves her husband. She's also brave enough to note that in one of their wedding photos taken with friends, they look like "two happy gay couples."
And she's shrewd enough to see that in the end, Gregory's own imminent mortality has scaled his father down to human size. "He no longer seems to care what his father did or didn't do," she observes with satisfaction. "Where Andre has found his father is in his work."