Second Helpings: Our Dinner with Andre—32 Years Later

Dinner with Andre

By Rich Simon There are certain movies that you just never forget and that somehow become part of your inner life. Andre Gregory’s My Dinner with Andre, starring himself and his real-life friend, playwright Wallace Shawn, was one such movie for many therapists, including me. Conceived by Andre as he was coming out of a long mid-life crisis, the movie is essentially a long dinner conversation in a posh restaurant between two friends: The mercurial “Andre,” who describes at length his exotic quest for spiritual revelation, and his sensible, unadventurous, and increasingly exasperated friend “Wally,” who simply can’t understand why anyone would have to go mountain climbing in the Himalayas to find meaning in life.

While poking fun at the narcissism and absurdity of both characters, as well as at the bromides of New Age pop-spirituality, the movie is also a provocative, often dazzling tour de force exploration of the basic questions of human existence, including the terror of death in the face of the life not fully lived. If you’ve never seen My Dinner with Andre, just click here to get a flavor of what makes it so distinctive.

About a decade after My Dinner with Andre, Andre and a small company of actor friends—all in the midst of some personal psychological turmoil (Andre’s wife had just died of cancer)—began rehearsing a production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. The company originally had no thought of actually performing the play; the actors were more like a family and the rehearsals more like a form of group therapy than a viable production in the making. But Vanya’s rehearsals became an underground sensation in New York, seen by small groups of the city’s cultural elite, and five years after the project was begun, Louis Malle—director of My Dinner with Andre, as well as Atlantic City, Pretty Baby, and many other acclaimed films—made a movie of the process, called Vanya on 42nd Street, which itself was widely considered a small masterpiece. In 1995, Andre made his first visit to the Symposium to show the film and created a sensation with the therapist audience with his mix of wry humor and breathtaking candor, as he quipped that, “Kubrick’s The Shining was a documentary about my childhood.”

Now, nearly two decades after Vanya, not only is Andre due to direct two plays at New York’s famed Public Theater this year, but he is also reuniting with Wallace on another quixotic film project. This time the classic play turned into a film is Henrik Ibsen’s The Master Builder and it has been directed by Academy Award-winner Jonathan Demme, whose other films include The Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia, and Rachel Getting Married. Their production, starring Wallace and based on his translation from the original Norwegian text (though, somehow fittingly, he says he doesn’t speak Norwegian), has itself been “in rehearsal” for roughly 14 years.

At this spring’s Symposium, 32 years after the premier of My Dinner with Andre, we will be having a special dinner event with Andre and his wife, documentary filmmaker Cindy Kleine, who has made a remarkable movie about Andre’s life—Before and After Dinner—that will be shown at the conference. We’ll explore with Andre—now 77—what it’s like to live a life off the beaten track, following his own path without the least regard for what critics, financial backers, or even the general public wants. We’ll also talk about his own adventures in psychotherapy—he’s had decades of it and is at least as sympathetic toward therapy as Woody Allen. Among other things, we’ll get a glimpse of a marriage between two highly creative and original people as we talk about devoting one’s life to one’s craft, and the process of making art from the raw stuff of lived experience.

For more information about our dinner with Andre, click here.

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