The subject of a new docu screening at DIFF, Michael White might be the most famous person you've never heard of
He’s a theatrical impresario credited with transforming London’s West End with scores of risqué ’70s productions, like Oh! Calcutta! and Chorus Line. He’s the forward-thinking film producer who brought Monty Python and The Rocky Horror Picture Show to the screen. He’s a notorious socialite who still counts the likes of Jack Nicholson, Johnny Depp and Mick Jagger as friends. He’s dated glamorous women from Naomi Watts to Vogue editor Anna Wintour. He’s even charged with ‘discovering’ Kate Moss – and introducing Yoko Ono to John Lennon. Yet you probably haven’t heard of Michael White.
It was that staggering list of achievements – that life lived at full tilt and foot on the pedal – which transfixed Grace Otto when she heard about it first hand, at the Cannes Film Festival in 2010. For the then-23-year-old actress, model and aspiring filmmaker (pictured above), encountering White was a life-changing, eye-opening revelation. For White himself, now aged 77 and an annual visitor to the festival for more than four decades, it was most likely just another encounter with a pretty young blonde. Although it’s arguably his life which has changed most thanks to the meeting – inspired Otto went on the direct glowing documentary portrait The Last Impresario, which premiered at the London Film Festival in October 20, and comes now to the Dubai International Film Festival.
The project was in many ways an accident. Shortly after that first meeting White found himself solving some financial difficulties by auctioning off showbiz memorabilia and personal artefacts at London’s Sotheby’s. It was an event the fresh-from-film-school Otto – daughter of actor Barry and sister actress Miranda – decided might be worth shooting.
‘When I met him at Cannes he had this aura that was really inspiring,’ remembers Otto, now 26. ‘I thought he lived this incredible high-flying life. Then [In London] I realised he had no money, it was a totally different situation to what he presented around his friends. I read his autobiography which was published in 1984 – and then his story kind of stopped.’
Kate Moss, from Michael White's personal collection
It was these gaps Otto sought to fill, beginning a hunt for answers which saw the filmmaker track down and interview more than 60 of White’s heyday friends and acquaintances, each helping flesh out the myth. ‘I didn’t really know I was making a film about Michael until I was making a film about Michael,’ she remembers. The gaps were only made greater by White’s speech disabilities after suffering three strokes. But the more Otto learned the more hungry she became. ‘I thought it would be a short film, and then everybody I spoke to would tell me to talk to someone else – and then I’d see something that says he dated Anna Wintour at 21 and be like “what?”’.
The further up the food chain Otto went, the harder securing interviews became. John Cleese, who later agreed to take part, initially turned down her requests for an interview. Others were easier. ‘With Yoko Ono we just rang her office number from IMDB and got straight through to her agent,’ laughs Otto. A big boast came when Naomi Watts backed the project financially, and signed up as associate producer, helping to pull in other celebrities. And why did Watts back the project? She used to date White, says Otto. ‘It’s funny because all these women were in romances with Michael, but have never said it,’ she says, only ruling Moss out of that decree.
Andy Warhol, From Michael White's personal collection
For his part, White did his best to open doors and guide Otto to the gold. When Mick Jagger came over to meet the pair at a party, White chided Otto for not filming the singer (instead just Jagger’s feet appear in the cut). And when the impresario picked the filmmaker up in LA one day for ‘a surprise’, it turned out to be a day at Jack Nicholson’s mansion. A sequence of Otto’s approach to the house survives, but she was forbidden from filming – a personal regret as Nicholson was dressed in ‘a Rocky Horror T-shirt and pyjamas’. (The trio later went out to dinner, where Otto took Nicholson’s mobile number down but was too scared to pick up the phone, instead asking a friend to put in a begging call pretending to be her – Nicholson refused).
So, are the myths true: did White really introduce Kate Moss to the world? ‘Anna Wintour says he was by far the first person to talk to her about Kate Moss,’ says Otto. And introducing Yoko to John? ‘I know he brought Yoko [to London] to do a show, and the gallery was where they met...’
Michael White in the 70s
And what does The Last Impresario himself think of all this digging around in the closet? There was a moment of worry when it emerged that he left the London premiere before the credits rolled – in what is said to be typical style, he ducked out to head straight to the after party. ‘I was really worried when the curtains came up and I saw he wasn’t there,’ laughs Otto, ‘he wanted to get out and get to the party first. But he loved it – now he calls me every day.
‘In his condition, he’s in the moment with an incredible desire to live each day fully – he still loves going to nightclubs and parties.’
The Last Impresario screens as part of the Dubai Film Festival at VOX, Mall of the Emirates on Tuesday December 10 at 9pm. The screening will be followed by a Q&A with Otto, producer Nicole O'Donohue and Dubai-based associate producer Richard Coram. or more information and tickets see www.diff.ae.