Wally's World

Pop Culture

CALL it "My Conversation with Wally"--an odd look at the real person behind the carefully-scripted Wallace Shawn '65.

A lot of people may not have known that the Wallace Shawn who was part of the conversation to end all conversations in My Dinner with Andre was not Wallace Shawn the philosopher, but Wallace the actor. Or as he said in an interview after giving a talk at Adams House, "In the movie we decided that Andre would say the crazy things, and I would say the bourgeois things."

It is disillusioning to have the champion of urban values--who in the realistic movie came up with memorable arguments to refute a charismatic artist who claimed that the roofs of buildings floats--tell you that it was all an act; to have the epitome of New York neurosis--who said he saw epiphany in drinking a cup of coffee left out overnight which escaped the attention of Manhattan cockroaches--explain to you that we should all be obsessed by American dominance of the world. It was as if I was sitting on the wrong side of the table from him.

Instead of grand pronouncements about urban life, Shawn told me that "My Dinner with Andre was quintessential of the Carter era--optimistic, cheerful. It could not be made in the Reagan era. In fact," he continued, "when I see Andre [Gregory], when we meet and talk, we always talk about politics. If we made the movie today we would both be obsessed with the political questions." Again the reality and illusion seemed to mesh too perfectly. He really meets and talks with that crazy guy, Andre. Yet as Wally explained, the issues he defended, some of which he "still believe [s] 100 percent," were not worth the three hours of film time.

HE spoke about peasants with off-beat seriousness and the same mannerisms he used to talk about cigar shops on Madison Avenue. And of course, the peasants were not just impoverished, but the object of American geo-political movements. "The essence of my being to a peasant in Thailand is being an American--not by choice, but by paying taxes."


In the Reagan era, Shawn has written plays like Aunt Dan and Lemon, which dwell on questions of politics and people like Henry Kissinger. He has been true to his word. And I couldn't help thinking two thoughts. First, was he right? Is it so ethically suspect to be an American? And second, what does it mean that my values were being torn from the ground by a man who had only recently been the defender of a New Yorker's, if not an American's way of life?

But of course, I could always retreat to the comfort of the illusory reality, or realistic illusion of My Dinner, which concluded with Shawn riding in a muttering, "I'll never forget my dinner with..."

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