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Adding to the mystery is Gregory’s suspicion, on the basis of a book by historian Harold James, that his father and uncle were hired by Hitler and the Nazi economic minister Hjalmar Schacht in the early 1930s to commit financial espionage against the French. Though the researchers Gregory hires in Paris and Berlin fail to find any evidence of this, the idea is so upsetting that he comes down with shingles.
Gregory’s family history is never fully unraveled, but it does explain his obsession with Nazism. In “My Dinner With Andre,” he compares acting exercises to the Nuremberg rallies and likens his own artistic pretensions to those of Nazi architect Albert Speer. Most spectacularly, he suggests that New York is a perfect concentration camp, built and guarded by the inmates themselves. For a dinnertime conversationalist, he can get pretty morbid.
Three decades later we see, instead of the taut debater, a gray-haired, grandfatherly figure, child-like in his enthusiasms. His ideas are less apocalyptic, but just as captivating. In a talk to students at The New Actors Workshop, he advises them to “render unto Caesar” and make a living (Gregory himself appeared in several Hollywood flicks, including a role in “Demolition Man” alongside Sylvester Stallone and Wesley Snipes), but to pursue an artistic ideal at the same time. “It’s great if you can be an explorer, if you can go out into uncharted seas,” he says. “All you need is a tiny room with a few friends, and you can make a miracle — with time.”
He’s not joking about that last part. In the late 1960s Gregory worked with a troupe called The Manhattan Project to create a production of “Alice in Wonderland” through an open-ended regimen of experimentation and rehearsal. In the 1990s he conducted a similar experiment with Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya,” as adapted by David Mamet, which was rehearsed for four years and yielded the movie “Vanya on 42nd Street.”
In “Before and After Dinner” we see Gregory rehearse Henrik Ibsen’s “The Master Builder” with a group of actors in the last stages of a process that has been going on for 14 years. (A movie adaptation, titled “Wally and Andre Shoot Ibsen,” is forthcoming.) Taking that long to rehearse is extreme, but for Gregory, theater is less a matter of performance than it is a spiritual discipline. At the beginning of “My Dinner With Andre,” he describes going into a forest with his mentor, Polish director Jerzy Grotowski, with no other purpose than to “sit there and wait for someone to have an impulse to do something.” It was like improvisation, except they were playing themselves. Theater isn’t a vehicle for fiction, in this case, but a means of self-discovery through the removal of everything else.
Gregory, as he appears in the 1981 film and the new documentary, is one of those people whose way of being in the world is unique. We can’t be more like him, but of course, that’s not his goal. As Gregory would have it, we should be more like ourselves, or like the selves we might discover if we allowed ourselves to take off and explore “uncharted seas.” It’s an alluring idea: Who doesn’t want to embark on their own voyage of self-discovery? At the very least, we would come back with some good dinner conversation.
“Andre Gregory: Before and After Dinner” screens until April 16 at Film Forum in New York.
Ezra Glinter is the deputy arts editor of the Forward. Follow him on Twitter, @EzraG