There’s a certain suspicion about hieroglyphic documentary portraits of individuals of a generational span (the enjoyable Supermensch springs to mind), but The Last Impresario (2013) constantly surprises both by what it is and what it’s not. Gracie Otto (sister of Miranda) helms this portrait of legendary theatre and film producer Michael White. In spite of herself, she stumbles upon a tale that combines Zelig, a minor character from Proust (Palamède de Guermantes, baron de Charlus perhaps) and either a warning or celebration of a life lived, parties attended and all the while contributing to the cultural well being of England. White is a producer we will not see the like of again; a dying realisation of honour and sensitivity.
It’s likely most people will be ignorant of the cultural artefacts White has brought forth, yet everyone knows those plays and films. He was also partly responsible for overcoming the stifling presence of the Lord Chamberlain Office who were responsible for theatre censorship. The cause of this revolution was Kenneth Tynan’s Oh! Calcutta!, an avant-garde sexual revue that ran for over 3,900 performances in London. Oh! Calcutta! is just one swallow of a summer worth of music and graceful transcendence. Amongst other things, White introduced Pina Bausch, Merce Cunningham and Yoko Ono to London audiences. He backed The Rocky Horror Show and gave John Cleese and Barry Humphries their London breaks, then transferred to cinema with Monty Python and the Holy Grail and John Waters’ Polyester.
The Last Impresario is full of talking heads that range from Kate Moss (who calls White the person who could keep up with her debauchery), Naomi Watts and Anna Wintour. They all sing from the same hymn sheet: that he was the conduit from every stratosphere of society. One day would be a dinner with royalty, the next with Joe Orton. Slowly, the idea of his love of parties and nightlife becomes the consequence of his fear of loneliness that stems from being sent away to school at a very young age. He’s a man who dealt on handshakes and never contracts, because of this he’s swindled out of the rights to The Rocky Horror Picture Show when it moved to LA by music producer Lou Adler. He doesn’t cry or sue; what would be the point – he’d miss out on parties thrown by Adler. There’s something of Gatsby in White, an individual emptiness that was filled with people which he has documented in over 20,000 photographs.
White constantly took photographs of his friends and colleagues since the beginning, he was able to document life behind that curtain of a celebrity that only now fascinates people. At the end of the The Last Impresario we focus on him living in a modest Notting Hill apartment, the townhouses are all gone: sold to finance the next film or play that invariable flopped. What remains are all that has kept him company over the years, the friendship of the likes of Jack Nicholson and Wintour et al. who remember his constant generosity and now are able to return the favour. There are no regrets, however. Michael appears to accept his lot with a smirk and a Gallic shrug of the shoulders. His is a stoical existence, that via archive and oral history we see him at this best and the slow transformation reaches a point when all we have is our memories and, more importantly, other’s memories of our glorious existence.