Movies watched: My Dinner With Andre, On The Beach
Where watched: Home
Time: 111 minutes, 134 minutes
Total elapsed time: 20 hours, 4 minutes
My Dinner With Andre existed for me as nothing more than a pop culture reference for many years. It was one of those movies alluded to knowingly by others; an offhand remark, a laugh, and then the conversation would move on. My cynical teenage mind just assumed it was one of those movies that people discuss without having actually seen it.
When I finally did see it, in my twenties, I was fairly impressed. The idea of two guys sitting at a table talking (and lets not forget the eating and drinking, an important part of the setting) for nearly two hours is simplicity itself. But how to keep it entertaining? The screenplay, written by the movies two stars, Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory never lags. The pace of the dialogue sometimes slows, then quickens, much like a natural conversation would, but it keeps moving. Director Louis Malle keeps things interesting as well, with some subtly shifting camera set-ups that keep things fresh without drawing too much attention to themselves.
This movie is so natural that it has the feel of a documentary, and most of the things referenced really did happen: Gregory really went to Poland, Shawn really did teach Latin, to name a couple. But the characters “Wallace Shawn” and “Andre Gregory” are many layers removed from the actor/writer Wallace Shawn and the actor/director Andre Gregory. Think back on memorable conversations you have had with one of your best friends, those talks that move from the banal to the sacred. Now imagine trying to distill those conversations years later into a single dialogue with a through-line and a dramatic conclusion. That is pretty much how this movie was constructed.
Seeing it now, it holds up incredibly well, because the things discussed are all very human. I love the talk about the electric blanket, I love Wallace Shawn defending his love of simple daily pleasures, then later admitting his fears.
This movie at times reminds me of some of the great talks I have had with my friend Tom over the years. I feel like we are having one never-ending discussion, interrupted and resumed many times. All the best conversations should introduce more questions than answers, and leave one with a sense of the profound. This movie certainly does that, because it is about life; because it is life.
Remember the end of Waiting for Guffman when Corky St. Clair was showing off his My Dinner With Andre action figures? If only they were really a thing.
During the cold war, there was a wave of apocalyptic anti-nuke books and movies, many of them quite good. Of course everybody knows Dr. Strangelove, which has stood the test of time because of its comic tone and great performances. On The Beach is another movie from the same time period. It does not hold up nearly as well.
I wanted to revisit this movie because I finally read the novel by Nevil Shute. (A novel I bought about 15 years ago, I might add. And there it sat on its shelf, mocking me, taunting me, until I just couldn’t take it any more.) The book, which examines the last year of human life on earth after a nuclear holocaust, was powerful and memorable. The movie though, is primarily forgettable.
It has a lot going for it. It was directed by Stanley Kramer during his hot streak (sandwiched between The Defiant Ones and Inherit the Wind), starring Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire, and a pre-Psycho Anthony Perkins. The performances are all good. Mostly. Okay, I have to get this off my chest. I don’t like Ava Gardner as an actress. Can’t stand her, to tell the truth. She may be my least-favorite actress. I just can’t trust the acting choices of any woman who could be married to both Mickey Rooney and Frank Sinatra. I mean seriously, are you effing kidding me?
Seeing this movie in the theater in 1957, when the threat of a nuclear war seemed very real, must have been a frightening, sobering experience. But today it seems a little out outdated. Most of Stanley Kramer’s other social commentary films are still very relevant today, but this one just does not captivate. It looks great on the Kino Lorber blu-ray, and fans of Stanley Kramer or Gregory Peck should definitely give it a go.