Gracie Otto attempts to uncover the story of theatre and film producer Michael White, whom she coins one of the world’s great impresarios, yet whose story has never been told. A formidable presence in British cultural life and society for decades, White's productions include The Rocky Horror Show, Chorus Line, The Monty Python and The Holy Grail.
LONDON FILM FESTIVAL: There can be little doubting director Gracie Otto’s desire to be taken seriously on screen. The sometime actress cum model cum socialite hails from an Australian family of respected thesps: her elder sister Miranda starred in The Lord of the Rings films, her father Barry Otto is a veteran of stage and screen, as is her mother, Susan Hill. Having cut her teeth on a series of shorts, then assisted on a handful of features (including helping former beau Matthew Newton edit his 2009 Australian debut feature, Three Blind Mice), Otto the younger would now appear ready to tackle feature-length material herself.
A picture soon emerges of a man fuelled by a heady cocktail of professional and hedonistic ambition.
Armed with a small crew and a minimal budget, Otto’s chosen subject is Michael White: a groundbreaking producer of stage and screen, responsible for a seismic cultural shift in Britain during his West End heyday in the 1970s and 1980s. Now aged 77, he is a shadow of his former self, following a series of strokes and financial ruin. For reasons not entirely clear, he’s rarely been profiled before. (A similar project in 2008, with British author Guy Kennaway at the helm, appears to have vanished without a trace.) Yet his little black book of celebrity friends remains substantial. Tellingly, as we hear early on in Otto’s film, while White is kicking back outside his Cannes hotel, Mick Jagger ensures he stops to say hello.
Otto claims to have been fascinated by White: a colourful, once gregarious, now elderly gentleman, whom everyone in the room would gravitate to. She follows him here, there and everywhere (after Cannes, we also visit his London home, as well as various locales in the US). White is often seen with a cheap, disposable camera in his hand – he’s always captured candid moments of his famous friends rather well – and seems vaguely bemused by Otto’s benign presence. But he’s less than impressed when she fails to capture the aforementioned encounter with Jagger on camera. 'I didn’t think I was allowed to" is the rather tepid response.
Such incidents are, thankfully, kept to a minimum (later footage, of Otto accompanying White to Jack Nicholson’s house was apparently cut, at White’s request). The film otherwise spends its first hour tracing White’s rise and fall in the showbiz world, from his well-balanced beginnings in the UK, his brief foray on Wall Street in the 1950s, and on to global success in the arts. It’s all presented swiftly through an impressive array of archive material, boosted by a flurry of talking heads that emphasise White’s appeal. There are former lovers (Lyndall Hobbs and Naomi Watts, also credited as a producer), various stars and admirers (John Cleese, Yoko Ono, Julian Sands, Barry Humphries, Bill Oddie), fellow trend-setters (Kate Moss, Anna Wintour, John Walters) and even a former nemesis (Lou Adler).
A picture soon emerges of a man fuelled by a heady cocktail of professional and hedonistic ambition. White was a workaholic, a game-changer who refused to toe the party line, and who loved to party hard. His Rocky Horror Picture Show star Richard O’Brian describes him as an "eternal little boy". Bill Oddie compares him to a Bond villain, "always with a blonde on his arm." When White, a keen gambler, is forced to sell his prized letters, photos and other memorabilia at auction to avoid bankruptcy, it’s almost heartbreaking.
Almost, that is, but not quite. The story of White’s life is both intriguing and tragic. The film should have focused solely on that, rather than attempting a less convincing story arc that incorporates Otto into her own film. Her apparent interest in uncovering her subject, in understanding the man’s charms, is admirable, but hardly warrants screen time beyond its subject. During the film’s final act, she becomes all but ubiquitous, which adds nothing and will be of little interest to audiences, even less so for White’s admirers.
Frustratingly, White refuses to discuss key financial disasters – including the catastrophic decision to sign away to Lou Alder the rights to Rocky Horror – often appearing flustered, even irritated by Otto’s line of questioning. Most of the other interviewees appear comfortable on camera, and are generally well shot, but again – in another shocking display of naivety – their radio microphones are often left in full view, all wires and all. A co-director with documentary experience would surely have helped.
Still, for all the film’s shortcomings, White’s story does ultimately shine through. He clearly loves being with famous people more than actually making films or stage plays. And he is clearly adored, still, by those who know him. Which explains how he still flies to Cannes and Los Angeles. This man gets to hang with Jack. And always has.