James A. Fragale
Happy Birthday My Dinner with Andre, that 1981 comedy-drama, directed by Louis Malle–written by and starring Andre Gregory (Andre) and Wallace Shawn (Wally)–fictionalized versions of themselves, where they share a meal that was turned into a feature-length conversation at the classically beautiful New York’s Café des Artistes–as Erik Satie‘s haunting Gymnopédie No. 1 plays in the background. The film just turned 40 and hasn’t a single wrinkle.
Upon entering the restaurant, Wallace realizes the only way to make this evening bearable to himself, would be to ask Andre questions. “I always enjoy finding out about people,” he says. “Even if they are in absolute agony, I always find it very interesting.” He does and it is. By accident or design, the movie was edited down to precisely 111 minutes. To me, to this day, it is still one hundred percent captivating, never boring. Note the number 111 contains two significant digits in numerology: one and eleven. Numerologists claim 111 connotates independence… motivations, new beginnings, and an innate ability to let go—and then to move upward towards success. Why not?
The old friends haven’t seen each another for five years. Andre, a once well-known theater director, dropped out of Broadway’s hustle and New York’s bustle (or the other way around) to travel; Wallace stuck around, and had lukewarm success as a playwright. “You look terrible,” Wally says to Andre who replies, “Well, thank you…I feel terrible.” Friend Andre is tall, thin, angular and has just returned from far-off lands with rich and rare stories, which he eagerly recounts, right off. Wallace notes how different their worldviews have become. Wally’s own: his father, William, was for many years the editor of the New Yorker. “When I was young and rich,” Wally laments, “all I thought about was art and music. Now I’m 36, and all I think about is money.”
Without leaving the dinner table, the two chums treat the viewer to what the New York Times called “pop culture’s greatest portrait of a midlife crisis.” Wow. Revered cinema critic Roger Egbert’s review included: “the only movie entirely devoid of cliches,” high praise indeed. Feature film expert-educator Robert McKee weighed in with a questionable opinion, it’s “a quixotic adventure toward spiritual development.” Is it, I ask, my former teacher? Is it?
The talks cover topics that range from a simple cup of satisfying coffee to a detailed Sahara sojourn whose purpose was to create a stage play based on Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince. You might even say each is urging the other to wake up and smell the cappuccino. In Wally’s case, it’s real java. Then, in a more sobering tone, Wally adds that living life as Andre has for the last five years is simply not possible for most folks. Andre dismisses that possibility with this: what passed for normal life in New York in the late 1970s is more akin to living in a dream than it is to real life. Wally tosses out, “We’re just going around all day like unconscious machines, and meanwhile there’s all this rage and worry and uneasiness just building up and building up inside us.” The more blasé Andre adds, “We can’t be direct, so we end up saying the weirdest things.”
Somewhere along the way, Andre shares a sentiment that, to this day, haunts me. I often interject it into conversations with other writers. The way I recall it: looking directly at the camera, Andre says, “I don’t know if I have any talent or not. I merely get up every morning and move it around on the desk.” Psssst. I confess I don’t know if those exact words are in the script, but I remember the line, real or imagined, to have the most substance.
Perfect. Yes, all too perfect. The art-house flick is perfect in its imperfections. Here’s one goof, in some scenes Wally faces the camera, and the back of his head reflects the boom onto his shiny bald head. Ya’ gotta’ love it. Yet, this independent triumph is studied and parodied to this day, 40 years later, in film seminars.
The movie ends without a grand or even clear resolution to the varied conflicts in the gents’ snappy, smartly articulated worldviews. In truth, the movie wraps with no answers–merely more questions, torture, and malaise than the buddies began with. I didn’t mind that. To this movie maven, My Dinner With Andre was a welcome relief–an elevated, high-brow film, engrossing, enlightening, entertaining, at that time in my life. My mother had passed away that July.
Today, I frequently suggest an inquisitive look to young movie aficionados. As Ebert wrote, “A film with more action than Raiders of the Lost Arc.” M. D. W. A. is gratifying, engrossing, enthralling, delectable and tastier than the highly-seasoned imaginary meal the friends ingested in the two hours they talked and talked and talked; more filling and fulfilling than any of the exploding shoot-‘em-ups out there on the silver screen today. Hold the Malaise.