Well you might ask, 'Who is this Michael White and is it worthwhile a film being made about his life?' A lot of famous people seem to think it is a worthwhile undertaking.
It is Greta Scacchi, early in this film, who says that Michael White is the most famous person you have never heard of. This lively documentary is an attempt to make him known, now that he is almost 80, has had a stroke, and has not been involved in his impresario work of producing and financing theatre, films, the arts for many years.
His parents were refugees from central Europe, and he was born in 1935. An asthmatic, he was sent to boarding school in Switzerland, a lonely experience, although he says it gave him a broader international outlook. By the 1960s, he became interested in promoting experimental theatre in London, which continued during the 1960s, especially the swinging 60s, where he was swinging along with the most energetic of the clubbers, drinkers, drug-takers.
White took risks in promoting plays, clashing with the quite censorious Lord Chamberlain's office at the period. One of his greatest risks was the financing of Kenneth Tynan's Oh Calcutta, the musical review which put nudity on the stage. However, frequently during the film the camera's panning of a wall in his office shows a large panel with the posters of many, very many, plays that he put on, including some pieces by Barry Humphries (and Barry Humphries recalls the failure of his show, Housewife Superstar, on Broadway in the 1970s).
In fact, this is a film with myriad talking heads, all talking very personally, all warm in their admiration of Michael White and what he achieved as well as their own relationships with him. Some of the interviewees are Naomi Watts, Kate Moss, John Cleese, Anna Wintour, Yoko Ono. This jigsaw of personal testimonies does build up quite a portrait. It includes the background of his two marriages, his relationship with Australian media personality Lyndall Hobbs, interviews with his children and their interpretations of their father. Particularly helpful are the scenes with his first wife, Jill, who obviously has a great liking for her former husband – they divorced in 1972 – and has helped him in his illness.
The Last Impresario is a very well-researched, documented and edited documentary. The film draws on more documentary material, photographs, video material as well as the interviews than might have been expected. The project was initiated by actress, Gracie Otto (Barry Otto's daughter, Miranda Otto's half-sister). She came across Michael White at the Cannes film Festival, a Festival he had attended every year since 1968.
She found him at parties, meeting celebrities and decided to ask questions. She has a very blunt style in asking questions, which he comments on at one stage as being very Australian, and with her rather metallic voice, it is a wonder that he agreed to allow her to film him and make the film. but, she has persevered and put together quite an impressive portrait.
For those interested in British theatre and film, with extensions to Broadway, the film serves as a useful overview from the 1960s to the present. There is more detail than might have been anticipated. And this aspect of the historical overview is very enjoyable, entertaining.
But, having said that, one wonders about White himself. For those fond of meeting the rich and famous (though on a world level he is not so famous and, with the rather generous supporting of the arts and allowing himself to be swindled, especially in the case of the rights to The Rocky Horror Show, not too rich), this is a celebrity experience. But whether ordinary people would be interested in this life or even in meeting him, might be another matter.
- Reviewed by Fr Peter Malone MSC, associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
The Last Impresario, Australia. Directed by Gracie Otto. Rated M (Nudity and infrequent coarse language). 85 minutes. Umbrella Films. Showing now.