Remember ‘My Dinner with Andre’? He has more wisdom to bestow.
Theater director André Gregory has had a rocky career and personal life, but one thing shines through: his devotion to the pursuit of perfection.
The film “My Dinner with Andre” became a surprise art-house hit when it was released in 1981. At first glance, the premise appears thin: Two friends, director André Gregory and actor Wallace Shawn, meet for dinner, as themselves, and talk about the meaning of life, the nature of human relationships, and the best way to find personal contentment.
Now Gregory has written “This is Not My Memoir.” Co-authored with Todd London, the book is a series of reflections that recount his evolution from a neophyte director at experimental regional theaters in the 1960s to an éminence grise of the American stage.
The son of Russian Jewish refugees who fled first Stalin and then Hitler, he went to Harvard and decided, against his financially successful parents’ wishes, on a life in the theater. He was an enfant terrible as a young director – he worked for and was fired by three different regional theater companies in 4 years and the last of these dismissals involved a fist fight with the legendary actor Gregory Peck.
He created his own experimental theater company in New York City after teaching a workshop at New York University. Named the Manhattan Project because “we were so sure we would bomb,” it became one of the biggest theatrical hits of the decade. But after “eight long years of mind-bending fun,” it lost energy and direction and closed, something Gregory claimed “was a death for me.” He would not direct another play for 12 years.
Bereft and lacking purpose, he concluded that he needed “to burn down my career to go where my vocation was leading.” Financed by his inherited wealth, he began to travel the world. It was not a typical sabbatical. He spent time working in a Polish forest with the director Jerzy Grotowski and his theater group. Next, he made a trip to the Sahara to try, unsuccessfully, to create a play based on Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s “The Little Prince.” He made a pilgrimage to Tibet and India to work with Tibetan monks. During a stay with a performance art group on Long Island, he allowed himself to be buried alive.
“My Dinner with Andre” grew out of this long search for personal happiness and inner peace. A young playwright and actor named Wallace Shawn observed Gregory’s emotional turmoil and asked his older friend how he could avoid a similar midlife crisis. The two began to talk and they turned on a tape recorder. Shawn transcribed and shortened the conversations and turned them into a movie script. For a long time it seemed that nobody would be interested in producing the film but then, out of nowhere, the French director Louis Malle asked to be involved. The startled actors quickly – largely on the strength of Malle’s name – were able to raise the money and make a film.
When completed, it looked like a flop. It opened in only four theaters and the initial reviews (and likely there weren’t many) were not that promising. But then, much to everyone’s surprise, the critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel devoted an entire show to this thought-provoking movie and pronounced it the best movie of the year. The public flocked to see it.
The book’s title is important – this truly is not really a classic autobiography. Rather, it’s a set of reflections and observations about art and life that are, more or less, organized chronologically. There are surpassingly few dates to help the reader anchor the story. Indeed, in some cases, it’s not entirely clear what decade Gregory is referring to. And, surprisingly, there is less about his acting career than one might expect. (Among other movies, this versatile actor was in “The Last Temptation of Christ,” “The Mosquito Coast,” “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” “Protocol” with Goldie Hawn, and even “Demolition Man” with Sylvester Stallone.)
But several themes reappear throughout the book. For example, he greatly admired his parents, their triumph over adversity and their financial success, but they were distant, unloving, and could have “tied for gold in the Olympics of bad parenting.” Perhaps because of his negligent upbringing, Gregory notes with deep regret that he himself was an absentee husband and father for much of his adult life.
His extraordinary devotion to craft and his sheer tenacity is another theme that shines through. Unlike many directors who rehearse a show for a few weeks before opening, Gregory often prepares for years: he spent four years readying “Uncle Vanya” for the stage and 14 years on “The Master Builder.” He hopes to have “Hedda Gabler” ready in time for his 100th birthday – 15 years from now. It’s clear that Gregory is a perfectionist. One suspects that this devotion to craft and excellence – no matter how long it takes – is part of the reason actors like working with him. In the end, his profound commitment to making it perfect is at the heart of everything he does.
This is an engaging, thoughtful, and provocative book by a master storyteller. Readers interested in theater and movies will be spellbound. But even those who are not theater buffs will find his desire for perfection to be admirable and a topic for personal reflection. If nothing else, one is left with the observation that having dinner with André would indeed be a fascinating and rewarding privilege.