“My Dinner With Andre” is a movie I like to re-watch every so often just for the pleasure of rethinking certain thoughts: Can theater create life-changing experiences, or does it confirm our ideas about the world? Are we ever able to be ourselves, or do we merely act out social roles? Does comfort lull us into “a dangerous tranquility,” or should we seek small pleasures where we can find them? Are we living under a “world totalitarian government based on money?”
Wallace Shawn, an actor and playwright, and Andre Gregory, a theater director, discuss these questions for nearly two hours in the 1981 film, directed by Louis Malle. The idea for the picture seems self-indulgent — which college freshman doesn’t think his late-night philosophizing worthy of posterity? — but the intensity of the conversation stands up over time. Not all of their talk is profound, but a lot of it actually is.
Now, a new documentary, “Andre Gregory: Before and After Dinner,” grants us deeper insight into the featured performer. Created by Gregory’s wife, Cindy Kleine, a director whose work encompasses the intersection of art, family and self, the film delves into her relationship with her husband; his relationships with friends and fellow artists (including Shawn); his pursuit of theater and painting, and his mysterious family background.
Kleine identifies her parents as Long Island “Jews who were Jews,” for whom “fighting was the primary means of communication.” Gregory, by contrast, compares his European, upper middle-class parents to the “insane rulers of some little Balkan country,” who were emotionally frigid and distant from their children. Despite the fact that both were Jewish, neither ever brought it up.
Much is unclear about Gregory’s background, and it seems he doesn’t know the whole story himself. At one point, while Skyping with a researcher in Paris, Gregory states that his father, George Gregory, was a confidante of Trotsky but escaped Russia before Stalin came to power; worked for IG Farben in Germany but made it out before Hitler took over; left Paris before the beginning of the war and then England before the start of Nazi bombing. In the United States he was interrogated for hoarding gold and hobnobbed in Beverly Hills with Charlie Chaplin and Errol Flynn. Who was this man?