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My Dinner with Andre
Director: Louis Malle (Dir)
Release Date:   1981
Premiere Information:   New York opening: 11 Oct 1981; Los Angeles opening: 4 Nov 1981
Duration (in mins):   110
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Cast:   Andre Gregory    
    Wallace Shawn    
  with Jean Lenauer (Waiter)  
  [and] Roy Butler (Bartender)  

Summary: Exhausted after a day of errands, Wallace Shawn walks to a Manhattan restaurant to meet Andre Gregory for dinner. Wallace reflects on his profession as a playwright and the day-to-day efforts necessary to his survival, including taking odd acting jobs. Wallace admits he has avoided Andre in the past few years, although he was once a great theater director and mentor. In the recent past, Wallace has heard strange stories about Andre that make him wary of the reunion. Arriving first, Wallace finds the opulence of the restaurant surprising, as Andre chose the location, and Wallace remembers him to be quite an “ascetic.” Shortly thereafter, Andre arrives and warmly embraces Wallace, whom he calls Wally. The men chat after they are seated. Wallace resolves to ask Andre a number of questions to find out what he has been doing. After some persistence from Wallace, Andre embarks on an expansive response. He details the sudden disillusionment he experienced a few years ago in his work as a theater director, when he felt there was no longer anything to say or teach. Prompted by his mentor, Jerzy Grotowski, a Polish theater director, Andre travelled to Poland to direct an actors’ workshop in a forest. Andre had provided Grotowski with what he believed to be unattainable criteria for his desired students, but which Grotowski fulfilled when he found forty, non-English speaking musicians who had also become dissatisfied with theater. As the students spoke no English, Andre describes his unconventional approach to the workshop: instead of assigning characters for the actors to improvise, Andre encouraged the participants to play themselves. For a long time, Andre’s vignettes are punctuated only by perfunctory questions from Wallace, pauses to eat or drink, or a visit from the waiter. Andre describes a group trance that arose from an acting exercise he lead during the workshop, and, later, a christening he underwent at the hands of the actors. Andre shows Wallace a picture from his time in Poland, in which he looks gaunt and serious. Andre remembers that he called Wallace upon his return but never heard back. Wallace deflects by telling Andre he was out of town, and Andre admits that most people thought there was something wrong with him at that time. Andre says he first experienced “what it really means to be alive” in Poland, which is, among other things, to accept death. Andre then relates an experience he had around that time, when he heard a voice say the words “little prince” as he was walking through a field, which led to a series of coincidences and, ultimately, Andre’s interest in putting on a play of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince . Andre travelled to the Sahara Desert with two actors and Kozan, a Japanese monk, to work on the play. After a terrible time in the desert, Andre brought Kozan to live at his home in New York for six months with his wife, Chiquita, and his children. During that period, Andre attended a Catholic mass on Christmas Eve where he saw a huge blue creature, "half bull and half man [with] violets growing out of its eyelids and poppies growing out of its toenails," inexplicably appear at the church doors. The only person able to see the bull, Andre ultimately accepted the vision as a sign of encouragement to continue the strange journey he was on. Wallace patiently listens to Andre’s continuing monologue with an ambiguous smile. After a brief mention of a disappointing trip he took to India, Andre describes an experience in Montauk that he shared with some friends who were artists. In the spirit of Halloween, Andre and several others were blindfolded and buried alive, naked. He makes one of several references to the Holocaust in describing the overwhelming experience. Becoming tense even in the retelling, Andre explains the shame with which he looks back on his spiritual excursions, likening himself to Albert Speer, a Nazi who also felt he was above the ordinary rules of life. Andre concludes that he feels he has squandered his life, which concerns Wallace. Andre goes on to talk about a general disconnect he has found between human beings, illustrating his theory with a story about visiting his ailing mother in the hospital. Though, to Andre, she looked as bad as a Holocaust survivor, a specialist who came in to check on his mother’s arm commented on how great she was doing. Andre becomes agitated as he describes the specialist’s inability to look beyond the arm and consider the general health of his mother. Wallace nods in agreement and offers a story about fellow actors who made insensitive remarks to him regarding his costume just before a play. Andre posits how living so unthinkingly causes people to say “the weirdest things,” as they avoid direct expressions of feeling. Turning to the theater, Andre remarks that people in the drama field spend so much of their lives performing roles that they forget the real circumstances on which the roles are based. Commenting on the “dream world” Andre believes people now live in, Wallace explains that he recently received an electric blanket and it has improved his life, even though he no longer sleeps the same way. Andre tells Wallace he would never use an electric blanket, as it provides another way to numb oneself to reality. Wallace suggests his work as a writer perhaps fights against the numbness by forcing people to confront reality. Andre worries the theater is no longer as powerful as it once was, and that Wallace’s plays only help to further deaden people. Andre conjectures the only remaining way to affect an audience is through experimental methods such as the christening he experienced in Poland. Frustrated by Andre’s point of view, Wallace wonders aloud why a writer cannot affect an audience. After Andre likens New York to a concentration camp built by the inmates themselves, he explains his theory that the last burst of “the human being” took place in the 1960s, and that people are now robots. Wallace counters with a strong critique of Andre’s position, insisting that he finds meaning in the routine responsibilities of daily existence, and that Andre has eschewed the purposefulness that gives meaning to life by rejecting convention. Instead of defensively countering, Andre concedes that Wallace’s point is valid, but he stresses the importance of people constantly questioning their existence to make sure they are “really alive.” Andre describes a false feeling of being alive that one can achieve from a sexual affair, saying, “it's all, I think, to give you the semblance that there's firm earth. But have a real relationship with a person that goes on for years--well, that's completely unpredictable. Then, you've cut off all your ties to the land, and you're sailing into the unknown, into uncharted seas. And, I mean, you know, people hold on to these images of father, mother, husband, wife, again, for the same reason, because they seem to provide some firm ground. But there's no wife there. What does that mean? A wife. A husband. A son. A baby holds your hands, and then suddenly there's this huge man lifting you off the ground, and then he's gone. Where's that son?" Wallace stares at Andre, visibly moved. The two men realize the restaurant has emptied. When the waiter brings the bill, Andre insists on paying. As Wallace treats himself to a cab ride home, he looks out the window and reflects on childhood memories. Wallace explains that his girlfriend was home from work when he returned, and he told her everything about his dinner with Andre.


 

Production Company: Saga Productions  
Distribution Company: New Yorker Films  
Director: Louis Malle (Dir)
  Lloyd Kaufmann (Prod mgr)
  Norman Berns (Asst dir)
Producer: George W. George (Prod)
  Beverly Karp (Prod)
  George W. George (Pres)
  Michael White (In assoc with)
  Keith W. Rouse (Assoc prod)
  David Franke (Assoc prod)
Writer: Wallace Shawn (Scr)
  Andre Gregory (Scr)
Photography: Jeri Sopanen (Dir of photog)
  Pedro Bonilla (Asst cam)
  Ralph Perri (Key grip)
  Robert Lechterman (Gaffer)
  Douglas Sutton (1st elec)
  John Thomas (2d elec)
  Robert Strong (Grip)
  Deborah Watkins (Grip)
  Diana Michener (Still photog)
Art Direction: David Mitchell (Prod des)
  Stephen McCabe (Art dir)
Film Editor: Suzanne Baron (Ed)
  James Bruce (Asst ed)
  Keith W. Rouse (Asst ed)
Set Decoration: Douglas Kraner (Set dec)
  Vincent Fournier (Props)
  Gensaco Marketing (Certain props)
  Mason Candlelight Company (Certain props)
  Oneida Silversmiths, Inc. (Certain props)
  Syracuse China, Inc. (Certain props)
Costumes: Jeffrey Ullman (Cost des)
Music: Allen Shawn (Mus)
Sound: Jean-Claude Laureux (Sd)
  Michael Burnstine (Boom op)
Special Effects: Ruth Ansel (Titles)
Make Up: Barbara Rouse (Makeup)
Production Misc: James Bruce (Prod coord)
  Saga Productions, Inc. (Prod supv by)
  Troma, Inc. (Addl prod services by)
  Vincent Malle (Asst to the dir)
  France Lachapelle (Scr supv)
  Richard Blankenship (Prod asst)
  Matthew Gaddis (Prod asst)
  Richard Siegel (Prod asst)
  Movielab (Lab)
  Commonwealth Films, Inc. (Lab)
MPAA Rating: PG
Country: United States
Language: English

Music: Erik Satie's "First Gymnopedie" played by Joseph Villa.
Songs:
Composer: Erik Satie
Source Text:

Copyright Claimant Copyright Date Copyright Number
the Andre Company 24/9/1981 dd/mm/yyyy PA117717

Physical Properties: Sd:
  col:
  Widescreen/ratio: 1.66:1

 
Genre: Comedy-drama
 
Subjects (Major): Dinners and dining
  Friendship
  Philosophy
 
Subjects (Minor): Acting--Study and teaching
  Actors and actresses
  Authors
  Baptism
  Blankets
  Bulls
  Catholic Church
  Death and dying
  Debates
  Experiments
  Gossip
  Hallucinations
  Holocaust, Jewish (1939-1945)
  Hospitals
  Live burial
  Monks
  Montauk (NY)
  Nazis
  New York City
  Physicians
  Poland
  Sahara Desert
  Specific names or types of restaurtants
  Surrealism
  Taxicabs
  Theater
  Theatrical directors
  Theatrical troupes
  Wives

Note: The summary and note for this entry were completed with participation from the AFI Academic Network. Summary and note were written by participant Ryan Weber, a student at Boston University, with Ray Carney as academic advisor.

       The end credits contain a “special thanks” to the following organizations and individuals: Mercedes Gregory; Atlas Theatre Company, Inc.; Upstate Films, Inc.; Steve & Dede Leiber; Royal Court Theatre; Max Stafford-Clark; Margaret Ramsey; Frederick M. Supper; George Ross; Virginia Film Office; and Norman Winston Foundation.
       In a preface to the screenplay published by Grove Press, Andre Gregory, who plays himself, explained that Wallace Shawn, who also plays himself, “felt that I either had had a complete nervous breakdown over the last few years, or else a creative block, or a spiritual awakening, or a combination of all three, but whatever it was, when he reached my age…he didn’t want to go through the same thing. “ Shawn suggested that he and Gregory meet weekly to discuss Gregory’s experiences since leaving the theater, and tape their discussions to use as the basis for a film enacted by the two men. According to a 6 Nov 1981 NYT article, after months of taping, Shawn gathered thousands of pages of transcript and spent the next eighteen months creating a fictional screenplay based on the taped conversations. In a 22 Jan 1982 HR article, Gregory told Arthur Knight, regarding the experiences his character relays in the film, “All of it was true.” However, both Shawn and Gregory were committed to creating a fictional piece with characters who were somewhat different from themselves. In a 30 Jan 1982 LAT news item, Shawn explains that he avoided mention of his own excursion to India and studies of Buddhism in order to differentiate his character from Gregory’s.
       According to NYT , director Louis Malle confirmed his interest in the project after reading Shawn’s 180 page screenplay. Wallace and Gregory helped raise funds for the film’s $400,000 budget, as stated in HR . According to a 1 Feb 1982 DV article, Michael White, who also put money into The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975, see entry), provided the largest investment.
       Malle initially had concerns about Gregory’s ability to carry the part, according to an interview with Philip French in the book Malle on Malle , published by Faber and Faber. Malle “played devil’s advocate” by suggesting Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford for the roles of “Wallace” and “Andre,” which “horrified” Shawn and Gregory, who were adamant about playing the roles themselves. According to DV , Gregory worked on his lines alone for three months, and went over the script with Shawn each day for nine months. The actors further prepared by performing the play onstage at the Royal Court Theatre in London for ten nights. Although he had coached the actors for the live performances, the DV article notes that Malle attended only one. Malle was convinced by the performance that the play should become a film.
       The film was shot for almost three weeks in Richmond, Virginia at the Jefferson Hotel with a non-union crew for budget reasons, according to the director in Malle on Malle . According to DV , conditions on set were “frigid” as the building’s heating system had to be turned off. For visual interest, production designer David Mitchell added mirrors to the set so that extras and waiters could be caught in the reflections. To accommodate for camera and lighting changes, mirrors made up of separate moveable squares were installed. Malle commented that the squares were “a nightmare,” as each square had to be moved with every camera setup. In the same interview, Malle stated that the 16mm film magazines used to shoot My Dinner with Andre were ten minutes each, so every take was ten minutes in duration. According to the 22 Jan 1982 HR , only one camera was used, and the shooting ratio was ten to one due to the long takes.
       Promotions for the film were budgeted low, at $800 per week in New York and less in Los Angeles, according to an unsourced article from the film’s file at the AMPAS Library. Shawn and Gregory traveled for promotional work, including media dinners in Boston. Jeff Lipsky of New Yorker Films pointed to the comedic trailer linking the film to “classic meals in film history” as more effective than its print campaigns.
       The film opened to good critical reception but slow box office returns. Reviewers found the film’s stars captivating, and NYT likened the “extremely special” film to “a reunion of Christopher Robin [Mr. Gregory] and Winnie-the-Pooh [Mr. Shawn] 30 years after each has left the nursery to pursue separate careers in the theater.” Wallace Shawn related in the 1 Feb 1982 DV article that the first few weeks of the film’s New York opening were dismal. However, word of mouth helped boost the film to greater popularity, and it eventually set a record at Los Angeles’ Westland I theater, bringing in $17,845 in its eleventh week of release. According to the unsourced article, after its debuts in major U.S. cities, My Dinner with Andre “[broke] house records in San Francisco and Chicago...even returning for new engagements at theaters in Denver and Houston where third-week figures had drastically improved [over] the soft openings.” The film also earned praise on the television show Sneak Previews hosted by film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, which, according to Lipsky, boosted word of mouth in the early weeks of its theatrical release. Such broad acceptance was in keeping with Shawn’s hopes for My Dinner with Andre to be a popular film, not a “rarified artwork for those interested in the expertise of film technique,” as stated in LAT .
       For foreign releases, the film was dubbed to avoid overly long subtitles, according to the 1 Feb 1982 DV . Shawn and Gregory dubbed the French version themselves.
       In January of 1982, the Boston Society of Film Critics awarded My Dinner with Andre Best American Film and Best Screenplay.
 

Bibliographic Sources:   Date   Page
Daily Variety   1 Feb 1982   p. 8, 21.
Hollywood Reporter   13 Oct 1981   p. 10.
Hollywood Reporter   22 Jan 1982   p. 35.
Los Angeles Times   1 Nov 1981   p. 28.
Los Angeles Times   30 Jan 1982   Part 5, pp. 1-2.
New York Times   8 Oct 1981   p. 13.
New York Times   6 Nov 1981.   
Variety   16 Sep 1981   p. 16.

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The American Film Institute is grateful to Sir Paul Getty KBE and the Sir Paul Getty KBE Estate for their dedication to the art of the moving image and their support for the AFI Catalog of Feature Films and without whose support AFI would not have been able to achieve this historical landmark in this epic scholarly endeavor.
 
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