Fifteen years ago filmmaker Cindy Kleine fell in love with André Gregory, a legendary theater director known more for co-writing and playing a version of himself in 1981’s conversational film drama “My Dinner With André.” (Other moviegoers might associate him more for getting his eye gouged out in the 1993 blockbuster, “Demolition Man.”)
When Kleine and Gregory married she was 39 and he was 63. Over time the age gap became more palpable and stirred her documentarian’s impulse to freeze time. Part love letter (that occasionally borders on too intimate) and part artist portrait, Kleine’s documentary, “André Gregory: Before and After Dinner,” opens today at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and runs through Aug. 9. Kleine and Gregory will be present at tonight’s 7:30 screening to answer questions.
Kleine, who narrates, sets a convivial pace and tone, best illustrated during a scene when she catalogs the 18 boyfriends who preceded Gregory. Photographs of each man flips by as Kleine lists, “Jonathan, Rob, Fernando, Rob ...” How did she manage such thorough record-keeping pre-Instagram? And so few clothes!
Kleine studied filmmaking at The Museum School and at MIT under Richard Leacock, who knew a thing or two about personal documentaries. Her last documentary, “Phyllis and Harold,” held a microscope to her parents’ 59-year marriage. (It premiered in Boston as part of the Boston Jewish Film Festival and this run is also co-presented by BJFF.)
Here, the marriage is unquestionably strong. Kleine pokes fun at Gregory’s close friendship and life-long collaboration with actor/writer Wallace Shawn, who appears frequently in “Before and After Dinner” and was his foil in “My Dinner With André.” And Gregory calls this friendship his “second marriage,” but it’s lighthearted. Kleine is yang to Gregory’s yin. In his youth he was never hugged, he says. In her family, “fighting was the primary means of communication and everyone talked at once.”
Kleine steps into the background and devotes the second part of the film to Gregory, with fascinating footage from his formative days in experimental theater (the Richard Avedon stills from “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” are a knock-out) and a peppering of Gregory’s theatrical wisdom and anecdotes told to wide-eyed, nodding listeners.
In one scene Gregory spins a delicate yarn about his first kiss, which just happened to take place in a moonlit, Marblehead, Mass. cemetery. His knees buckled and he fainted. In another, he recalls a moment of hysterical blindness.
Though both are Jewish, Gregory’s parents maintained a severely tight lip in this regard and the nature of his father’s relationship to the highest ranks of Nazi leadership continues to plague him and occupies a major thread of this film. Yet, as compelling as it to delve into the underpinnings of Gregory’s artistic drive, which he attributes to his terrifying father, the most gripping moments come while he’s directing Ibsen’s “The Master Builder” in his living room.
What sets him apart as director, we learn, is his willingness to take the time that a production needs — he rehearsed “The Master Builder” for 14 years, for example. His obsession with "Uncle Vanya" was documented in "Vanya on 42nd Street" by Louis Malle, who also filmed "My Dinner with André." Gregory also has an incorrigible trust in the actors he chooses. “I never audition an actor I only interview them,” he says.
There’s a discomfort at first with how long shots linger on Gregory’s intense, piercing gaze while actors deliver their lines off camera. An hour or so into this film, convinced of his portrait as a bottomless well of artistic chutzpah and encouragement, we are desperate to watch only his reactions. The act of directing, or life itself, is manifest in every line of his face.
This program aired on August 1, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.