Andre Gregory dominated two films by the late, great Louis Malle: one in which he talks almost non-stop, and one in which he barely says a word. Whatever presence Gregory has in popular culture is largely due to Malle’s 1981 arthouse classic My Dinner With Andre, which consists of one long, winding conversation between Gregory and his friend, actor/playwright Wallace Shawn, who chat together intensely about art, life, and the theater (which for these men is the perfect fusion of the two). But Gregory’s just as much of a force in Malle’s final film, Vanya On 42nd Street, a document of the unconventional production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya that Gregory, Shawn, and several of their friends rehearsed for years before staging it for small groups of invited guests. Vanya may be the best way to understand Malle’s work, in that it captures both his casual-yet-methodical style, and his effort to eliminate the barriers between actors and their roles.
Gregory’s wife, Cindy Kleine, is a skilled filmmaker, but she’s no Louis Malle, and her documentary Andre Gregory: Before And After Dinner is nowhere near as elegant as My Dinner With Andre or Vanya On 42nd Street. Mainly, the movie lacks focus. There are four major throughlines: Gregory’s 14-year rehearsal process for Ibsen’s The Master Builder; his first exhibition as a visual artist; his investigation into whether his father collaborated with the Nazis to destroy the French economy; and how he and the much-younger Kleine have adjusted to each other’s quirks over 15 years of marriage. Any of these stories would’ve been a fine way into knowing Gregory better, but as presented, it’s as though Kleine started making four different films and couldn’t finish even one.
Yet Before And After Dinner still has a lot of value, because Gregory is such a remarkable individual whose career has gone under-recorded on film and video. That’s the downside of the way Gregory has preferred to work, performing for small audiences in unconventional spaces—and frequently alongside Shawn, who’s an even more private person. (Shawn resists Kleine’s efforts here to shoot his interactions with Gregory, and seems shy about expressing the same affection for Gregory that Gregory openly expresses toward him.) Kleine, though, has the gift of access, which enables her to capture some stunning moments at the Master Builder rehearsals, and to catch her husband talking frankly with drama students about balancing art and commerce. There are clips here of Gregory’s non-avant-garde work as an actor in movies like Demolition Man and Protocol; but there’s also rare footage of his groundbreaking 1970 production of Alice In Wonderland, and anecdote after anecdote about once-in-a-lifetime moments that only happened because Gregory was patient enough to let them develop naturally. Sure, it would’ve been better to have seen those moments rather than merely hearing them described. But then the man doing the describing is Gregory—a legendary conversationalist.