A gloriously English answer to “The Kid Stays in the Picture,” “The Last Impresario” pays documentary tribute to a London theater and film producer whose life is just one happy ending short of a neatly scripted biopic arc. Triumphing over adversity, breaking all the rules, leading with his heart rather than his head, charismatic playboy Michael White puts an individual spin on familiar tropes, emerging as a vivid protag who is largely easy to root for and wholly interesting. The only surprise is that it should have taken an Australian actress/model — Gracie Otto, younger half-sister of fellow thesp Miranda — to identify the story’s potential.
Otto first encountered White at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, and was immediately struck by a twinkly-eyed septuagenarian who seemed to know everyone and was welcomed everywhere. He quickly agreed to let the statuesque beauty tell the story of his life, and soon the first-time feature director found herself in London, filming him auctioning off his correspondence and memorabilia at Sotheby’s.
Aptly described by one of the numerous talking heads as “the most famous person you’ve never heard of,” White emerges as the Zelig of London’s theater-land, the man responsible for introducing Yoko Ono, Merce Cunningham and Pina Bausch to London audiences. He challenged censorship with hit erotic revue “Oh! Calcutta!,” struck gold with “The Rocky Horror Show” and “A Chorus Line,” gave John Cleese and Barry Humphries their London breaks, then segued to movies with “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” “My Dinner With Andre” and John Waters’ “Polyester.”
While illness has rendered White a less-than-loquacious interviewee, the distance between the frail man presented and the vigorous one described only serves to give the piece an extra emotional kick. And Otto has certainly assembled an impressive roster of witnesses to his life, including Anna Wintour, Kate Moss (“They don’t make ’em like that any more”), Naomi Watts and former professional collaborators including Cleese, Humphries, Waters, Ono, “Rocky Horror” star Richard O’Brien and Wallace Shawn.
White was born in Scotland and then dispatched to a Swiss Alps boarding school because of his chronic asthma, and his hedonistic social compulsion may owe its roots to his early isolation. Similarly, his exposure to multiple European languages at a young age may be the root of his international outlook. An enthusiastic and generous host who delighted in mixing up stars from film (Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty), theater, fashion and rock music (Mick Jagger, David Bowie) with aristocrats and civilians, White was also an avid chronicler, and his personal photo albums are a veritable “who’s who” of his times. “The Last Impresario” is similarly supported by a rich trove of archival material.
Although celebratory, the film is never more interesting than when imparting home truths. “Michael was and is an insane gambler,” says one candid commentator. “Attention to detail was hopeless. He partied like it was never going to stop.” There are two topics White can’t and won’t talk about: the business deal that saw him lose control of the “Rocky Horror” property and its rich income stream, and the health episodes (strokes, evidently) that left him walking with two sticks. It’s in the space delineated by these painful mysteries that the film achieves its particular poignance.
Fascinating to those connected with the creative industries, but presumably of lesser appeal to wider audiences, Otto’s film should find warm welcome at festivals following its London bow, plus tube outings in Anglophone markets. White himself is unlikely to be changed by the renewed attention: At the London premiere, he bailed on the post-screening Q&A, not wishing to miss any of the after-party.