By Scott Ross
Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn are both credited with the screenplay for this non-pariel, but it was undoubtedly shaped and polished by the latter. Shawn’s attributes as a playwright include a remarkable ability to place words in a character’s mouth that incite hysteria in critics (and audiences), who may — as in the notorious case of his play Aunt Dan and Lemon — actually believe Shawn feels the same way about the world. How anyone could take the sweetly fascist ravings of Aunt Dan, and her pernicious defense of Henry Kissinger, as the playwright’s own attitudes beggars belief. But many people who saw and enjoyed this movie are startled to discover that the writer bears very little resemblance to the “Wally Shawn” of My Dinner with Andre.
Shawn portrays not himself but the audience’s surrogate: the zhlubby little Everyman who can’t quite wrap his mind around the things his erudite and somewhat pretentious friend is telling him when, if anything, Gregory’s attitudes are as much Wally’s as they are Andre’s. (Imagine the Wallace Shawn who wrote Aunt Dan being content to sit and read Charlton Heston’s autobiography!) Being a consummate dramatist, Shawn knew the audience needed conflict rather than agreement; the fact is, Shawn is more likely to hold the very opinions “Andre” espouses. It’s a canny performance, on-and-off screen, by a playwright as prickly as the autodidact he sits opposite in My Dinner with Andre.
Conceived and executed as what David Denby in his review of the picture called “a high-powered bull session,” the movie (smartly and unobtrusively directed by the late Louis Malle) consists largely of “Wally” and “Andre” at dinner, discussing Andre’s recent history as a kind of hermit-nomad of the avant-garde, and arguing about life, art, and meaning. Despite its being essentially a filmed conversation, the movie’s fascination never lags. Some of “Andre”’s nervous ruminations about the more programmed aspects of the human animal sound eerily close to prescience three decades after the movie’s release; as a result, much of the laughter — and the movie is very funny — takes on a more rueful edge these days. Andre Gregory is a marvelous raconteur; as he talks, his experiences become a series of surrealist dalliances with pretension, yet he’s enormously likable, and so passionate he makes most of the people we meet in life seem like the robots he believes we’re turning into.
And Shawn is his own best interpreter — his almost cherubic face is like a fun-house mirror reflecting back an increasingly hostile astonishment at what he’s being told. It’s a movie full of wonderful observations and acidic asides about the perils of modernity and is about as quotable a movie as you’re likely to find this side of All About Eve.
Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross