★★★★ | The Last Impresario
Gracie Otto’s affectionate documentary on the charismatic and adventurous English theatre and film producer Michael White is a movie long overdue. Despite his enormous contribution in a prolific career that spanned three decades he is as Anna Wintour succinctly put it, ‘the most famous person that you’ve never heard’. Ms Wintour also so accurately summed up his rich and tumultuous career by describing him as ‘a true Renaissance man’.
Michael ‘Chalky’ White was born in Glasgow in 1936 to wealthy immigrant Jewish parents who packed him off to Boarding School in Switzerland at the tender age of 7. This small shy boy who suffered from asthma and couldn’t speak a word of French was something of a loner and although fiercely independent developed a skill in befriending everyone, a character trait that would end up changing his life.
From Switzerland, he went to study at the Sorbonne which was followed by a stint as a Wall Street runner in the 1950s. Somewhere along the line this well-travelled young man discovered a passion for the theatre and landed himself a job with the impresario Peter Daubney in London producing international theatre seasons. At the ripe age of 25 White produced his first play in the West End. It was not a conventional drama but a production of Jack Gelber’s Living Theatre group called ‘The Connection’ and it depicted the life of drug-addicted jazz musicians. It had a mixed reception with its detractors up in arms about the debauchery on stage which showed men shooting up, something totally unheard of back in 1959 when every play was still censored by the Lord Chamberlain’s Office.
It was however not the last time that White would break all the rules as he pursued anything avant-garde and different than the norm in a career in which he mounted 101 stage productions and produced 27 films.
He introduced London to art ‘happenings’ with Yoko Ono, contemporary dance with Merce Cunningham and Pina Bausch, discovered the ground-breaking ‘The Rocky Horror Show’, joined forces with Kenneth Tynan to produce the all-nude review Oh Calcutta’, gave Barry Humphries aka Dame Edna Everage his first big break. Then as his career moved into movies he produced ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’, John Water’s ‘Polyester’, and the classic ‘My Dinner with Andre’.
Otto starts her movie almost at the end when after casually meeting White at the Cannes Film Festival in 2010 she is intrigued about this charming septuagenarian who literally knows everybody worth knowing. And what’s more, they all totally adore him. From British royalty to the Hollywood A list via mega-rock stars to model superstars, White has hung out with them all, and many of them, including ex-wives and girlfriends, eagerly line up to give witness to all the joyous times they have spent together. Even Wintour the Ice Queen cracks a rare smile on her face when she talks about her times with White.
White’s professional success (and sometimes failure) is because he is a gambler. Unlike any of his peers, he is happy to take a chance on people and their productions simply if he believes in them, almost in the same way that he bets on horses too. His personal ‘success’ is because he is an optimist and believes that everyone is his friend. ‘Some people have cheated me, but I have no enemies at all.’
Now after a couple of strokes, although White refuses to acknowledge the ageing process, he is obviously not in a good shape physically or financially. Whilst he is happy to talk about his life (with the rare exception such as losing the lucrative rights to The Rocky Horror Show) he adamantly refuses to let Otto in to find out much about him as a man. Several colleagues drop very broad hints that part of his present demise is due to not just the excessive partying but the use of recreational drugs, but Otto chooses not to pursue any of this.
His legacy will not just be all the thousands of photographs he took to chronicle his life with a whole galaxy or stars, or the correspondence with the rich and famous that he had hoarded for decades. It will be the way that his approach of leading with his heart and not his head completely propelled London into being a true world-class stage and discovering and giving a voice to such a remarkable array of talent. It also helped that he was also a professional charmer.
The world is definitely a better place because of Michael White, the like of whom we will never see again.