Home Video Hovel: Andre Gregory & Wallace Shawn: 3 Films, by Tyler Smith
When we think of the great cinematic collaborations, we tend to think of those directors that seem to have found a kindred spirit; somebody who seems to really understand what they’re trying to accomplish and is able to contribute better than other people. We think of Martin Scorsese and Robert DeNiro, of Steven Spielberg and John Williams, or Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart.
A lesser known collaboration is between Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn. There are a number of reasons why few people are aware of these two men and their tendency to work with one another. First off, Wallace Shawn is thought of primarily as a villain in The Princess Bride and, to a lesser extent, as the T. Rex in Toy Story. And Andre Gregory? Well, he’s not really thought of at all.
And yet, for the last several decades, these two men have worked with each other in several different capacities. In one film, they act together, but in another, one directs the other. And in still a third film, they play themselves having a casual dinner together.
Gregory and Shawn are not your typical collaborators. Rather than try to replicate a creative dynamic over and over again, they are instead more interested in pursuing a specific tone together. A tone of regret and melancholy, mixed with creative invigoration.
This is evidence in the recent Criterion Blu-Ray set containing three notable films on which the two men worked.
MY DINNER WITH ANDRE (1982)
The most unusual pairing of Gregory and Shawn is both the most powerful and the most well-known. It seems odd that a film involving two eccentric men just having dinner and talking could become a low level pop culture staple (having been referenced in Waiting for Guffman and Community, among others), but it soon becomes easy to see why it has taken hold in the minds of those that see it. In the film, Wallace Shawn tells us a story about an unusual dinner he has with an old friend, whose world philosophies have started to drift into places Shawn isn’t comfortable with. As the two men go back and forth, debating the merits of high-minded idealism versus workmanlike practicality, they each have moments of profound clarity, only to forget them minutes later. It is the type of conversation I’ve had with friends over the years, and the ease with which Shawn and Gregory relate to each other is a pleasure to watch. It’s strange that two men sitting, eating, and talking could be just as engrossing as a big budget action film, but it is!
VANYA ON 42nd STREET (1994)
As My Dinner with Andre is philosophically invigorating, Vanya on 42nd Street is about as artistically stimulating as it gets. In the early ‘90s, a group of New York actors regularly got together to rehearse and perform Anton Chekov’s Uncle Vanya, under the direction of Andre Gregory, and featuring Wallace Shawn as Vanya. These were never meant to be seen by an audience, but was instead meant to allow the actors the freedom to engage with their characters and fellow actors in ways that they never could in a traditional theatre setting. Eventually, though, the industry people got hip to it and slowly but surely these rehearsals acquired an audience. Soon, Louis Malle (director of My Dinner with Andre) was asked to direct it as a film. His directorial choices are masterful, but he acts primarily as a documentarian, trying to capture the emotional tone created by Gregory’s experimentation. Like My Dinner with Andre, the emotional give-and-take of those involved is fascinating to watch. It is difficult to not get caught up in the process that Gregory and his lead actor (Shawn makes a funny and devastating Vanya) work so hard to cultivate.
A MASTER BUILDER (2013)
Shawn and Gregory return to classical theatre in this, the most conventional of the three films. To film Wallace Shawn’s adaptation of the Henrik Ibsen play we have Jonathan Demme, a director whose own improvisational and experimental instincts fall right in line with those of Shawn and Gregory. The story of a tyrannical architect in his later years, as his mistakes come back to haunt him, continues with the tones of regret and melancholy seen in My Dinner with Andre, and the love of creativity seen in Vanya on 42nd Street. While Gregory is relegated to a supporting role, Shawn comes alive as the narcissistic architect, showing that he is far more than the goofy characters he so often plays. His performance is manipulative, scheming, and villainous, but eventually gives way to a deep well of loneliness and self-hatred. And while the film does find a certain degree of redemption for the character, the palpable spite that we feel towards him makes A Master Builder perhaps the riskiest of the three films contained in the set. At a time when Wallace Shawn and Andrew Gregory could settle into pleasant nostalgia, they instead choose to take an unblinking look at a life spent in service of the self. Perhaps they relate to the architect, whose obsession with doing amazing work trumps everything else in his life, including and perhaps especially his relationships.
Indeed, the common thread of these films is a desire to engage with the different aspects of life at all costs. Wrestling with conflicting philosophies, eternally performing for no audience but ourselves, forsaking the love of others in favor of higher (or lower) pursuits. These are not small ideas, and Shawn and Gregory seemed to find in each other somebody else interested in asking the difficult questions and facing the impossible answers.