Dinner Sanctum

Howard Hampton on Andre Gregory & Wallace Shawn: Three Films

Louis Malle, My Dinner with Andre, 1981, 35 mm, color, sound, 111 minutes. Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory.

LOUIS MALLE’S My Dinner with Andre doesn’t fit the usual definition of a great movie, but it has an inexhaustible, omnidirectional confidence. It’s the most subliminal piece of magic realism—expansive, incantatory words jousting with monotonous matter—ever put on film. Playing amusingly distilled, intensified versions of themselves, Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn sprang this cantankerous cerebral doubles act—part doleful Vladimir and Estragon, part verbal Laurel and Hardy—on an unsuspecting world in 1981. The oblique eccentricity of this archetypal pair of dissatisfied, failure-haunted “men of the theater” talking life and art and mysticism over a leisurely meal became an instant misfit touchstone.

My Dinner with Andre builds from the sketch-comedy premise of their misaligned but complementary personas (Andre the outlandish, conflicted visionary trying the patience of Wally the dour, flat-footed skeptic) into a remarkably fleshed-out interpretation of modern life—a miniaturized epic about the struggle for meaning and value in a society of sleepwalkers. Constructing a rigorous screenplay by boiling down many hours of taped conversations between himself and Gregory, Shawn created a robust, playful hybrid that skirted the edges of Stoppard-Beckett theater, 60 Minutes Q&A (some reaction shots of Shawn’s perplexed visage break up Gregory’s fervid monologues in a manner suggesting a correspondent politely hearing out a feudal warlord or megalomaniac CEO), and Harvey Pekar’s autobiographical American Splendor comics.

Now that the Criterion Collection has given Gregory and Shawn their own box set—Dinner and Vanya on 42nd Street (1994), both directed for the screen by the late Louis Malle, coupled with A Master Builder (2014), directed by Jonathan Demme—it’s easier to measure the jam-packed scope of their partnership. Here are two men who have been the antithesis of careerists, who have pursued personal projects that have unfolded over decades (their Master Builder was a work in process for fourteen years), but their joint undertakings deserve a place at the same table with Jean Renoir or Jean Vigo.

The movies with Malle reconceived how film can treat theater pieces and theatrical staging, devising organic ways of balancing out artifice and naturalism (fugue-like thematic variations disguised as offhand remarks or a stylized approximation of Chekhovian “Russianness” melded with plain American language) by conceptualizing acting modes as an extension of everyday deportment, the way getting dressed in the morning is also of way of getting in costume. My Dinner with Andre and Vanya on 42nd Street turned the cliché about being “a master class in acting” on its head. The actors don’t “get into character”—the characters find a voice within the modulations of each actor’s conversational procedures and customs. Their Vanya takes shape around the intent responses of each to all the others—the actors listening to their parts, the characters attending to their situations, an entire crosstalk traffic of motives and understandings between performers and texts—as though the characters were inhabiting the actors more than the other way around.

In this Vanya, performing in the orchestra pit of an abandoned theater passing beautifully for a decomposing country estate, Shawn, Larry Pine, Julianne Moore, George Gaynes, Brooke Smith, Jerry Mayer, and Lynn Cohen function as such a finely calibrated, interactive ensemble they really feel like an extended family, their self-presentation flowing out of private jokes and sorrows that are the result of lifetimes lived in close proximity. That this intimacy was arrived at after years of rehearsals followed by invitation-only performances for dinner-party-size audiences attests to the cast’s devotion to Gregory. And to the spiritual generosity of their approach to the text, which David Mamet adapted with abundant empathy and fellow-feeling: The actors home in on the precise dynamics of how comedy imperceptibly gives way to an inconsolable sadness of being. As Sonya, Brooke Smith’s mixture of humility and abased pride—a saintliness that is both snow-pure and bent on martyrdom with the resolve of a suicide commando—is a performance so exacting it puts the flashy histrionics of most of our big-time Award Winners to shame.

Louis Malle, Vanya on 42nd Street, 1994, 35 mm, color, sound, 119 minutes.

Part of the weird bittersweet elation in the Gregory-Shawn collaborations comes in how they upend stubborn aesthetic hierarchies: Gregory’s tour de force in Dinner is a piece of Wellesian self-mythologizing that is always doubling back on itself, balancing the prodigious ego with self-loathing, a figure engaged in hand-to-hand combat within his preening self. He’s a marginal figure to film culture, neither a regulation actor nor auteur, but he’s made a unique, indelible mark. Interestingly, the highly respected Noah Baumbach conducted interviews with Gregory and Shawn for My Dinner with Andre’s supplemental feature; it also happens he prefaces his recent feature While We’re Young with a quote for The Master Builder while loosely reworking some of its themes (the anxiety of influence, the machinations of young climbers/strivers). What’s striking is how timid and denatured Baumbach’s work seems when contrasted with the Gregory/Shawn approach, how lacking in real ambition it is, how readily it settles for the easy irony, the facile joke, the safely just-slightly-left-of-conventional resolution.

The reason Gregory and Shawn succeed in recontextualizing Chekov and Ibsen is that they approach the grand masters in the same spirit as they interrogate each other: They look on them as contemporaries, fellow explorers/sufferers, springboards into the deep end of a bottomless human pool. Demme’s A Master Builder—Ibsen translated by Shawn into a slippery, bemused fairy-tale idiom—is the most orthodox of these films. It has a bright, chamber-drama appearance that comes off a bit Merchant Ivory–ish, which understates the strangeness of the material. That’s not necessarily a bad thing—the hallucinatory quality of a dying architect’s last grasping stabs at life sneak up on the audience. And maybe the mundane “tennis, anyone?” look of a weekend in the Berkshires makes the fraught byplay between Shawn’s character and Lisa Joyce’s laughing child-woman all the more disturbing for being so incongruous. (It certainly gives the “Princess Bride” concept a different, dizzy-queasy pedophile meaning.)

It therefore works more as a series of coiled, volatile, sometimes illusion-smashing set pieces than the 360-degree view of the Chekov: The beauty in Vanya is being able to see the complete heartbroken humanity in impossible, sometimes insufferable people. With Ibsen, you get a solitary, tormented “genius” wrestling with figments of his imagination, playing black-comic hide-and-seek with denial and self-flagellation. Ibsen presents a world that is both modern and archaic—a standoff between two diametrically positioned epistemes. (Stuck inside of Norway with the Madness and Civilization Blues Again.) A Master Builder is deeply fascinating (plus it reunites Shawn with the much-undervalued Julie Hagerty, who so memorably costarred with him in the hilariously savage little masterpiece The Wife) without making that ultimate leap of poetic imagination that could make its ending transcendent instead of merely preordained.

In the supplemental interview on the Dinner disc, Shawn says he undertook the project in part to kill the bourgeois part of him that was Wally: “That’s why I can’t watch the movie, because [Malle] caught something” too close to the bone. (It’s regrettable Criterion couldn’t find a way to put his original three-hour script on the disc, or the transcripts of their conversations, or better yet some of the hours of tapes themselves: If you’re going to have this on Blu-ray, why not take advantage of the format?) The Gregory-Shawn projects have all been slowly developed, process-oriented exercises in time-lapse revelation. Because they lack attention-grabbing gestures and high-power, “cutting-edge” appendages, they can be taken for granted or partially dismissed. But nobody has done better, more profound film work at the intersection of mortality and hope.

Andre Gregory & Wallace Shawn: Three Films is now available on Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection.