Interview: Gracie Otto on The Last Impresario

By Interview by Efrosini Costa, photo by David Shields

Interview: Gracie Otto on The Last Impresario
Australian actress Gracie Otto's directorial debut documents the life of the most famous person you've never heard about.

Impresario is not a term you often hear, what did you mean by calling the film, THE LAST IMPRESARIO?

So many people I interviewed referred to Michael as an impresario, a great producer. It is almost a forgotten term because most productions these days are in the hands of groups of individual producers or multi-national corporations. The budgets are immense and it is no longer possible for a single independent producer to raise the finance for a show from amongst friends and associates as Michael did for many years. We thought for a while of calling the film just Impresario, but then we decided to call it The Last Impresario because he really is one of a kind.

The premise of the film is to tell the world who Michael White is, why was this important to you?

I wanted to make this film for two reasons. Most importantly I made this film for Michael. I wanted to ensure that his incredible legacy was recognized and honored and celebrated in his lifetime.  But I also wanted to make it to inspire my generation to live their lives the way Michael has – to nurture talent, to take risks and to have a great time doing it.

When did you first meet Michael White? What do you remember most about him?

I was blessed to meet Michael White! I arrived at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival for meetings about another script I had written. It was the year the volcano in Iceland was erupting and delaying flights so none of my friends had arrived. I went to a huge after party by myself and what I noticed in the early hours of the morning was this old man, sitting with his walking stick beside him, who was the centre of attention at a party full of glittering celebrities. He didn’t talk much, he just smiled a lot, and people seemed to love him. He just had an amazing aura about him. When I asked if he would like me to get him a drink he asked for my phone number in the nicest way. So I gave it to him. And I am so happy that I did.

Why is he the most famous person we have never heard about?

I guess that we don’t usually hear so much about producers and people behind the scenes – it is always about the stars and the directors. But what is extraordinary about Michael is the fact that he did over 300 plays and films and practically invented the celebrity opening night party and he had his hand in theatre, dance, film, art and fashion. He knew everybody who was anybody – from Hollywood stars to the British theatre world and the Royal Family. He was happy to take a quiet role behind the scenes. He was an observer who loved to promote talent, not himself.

How did he change British culture? What do you think is his greatest legacy?

When Michael White arrived in the British theatre scene it was a world of drawing room comedies, Shakespeare and Noel Coward. The Lord Chamberlain’s office was responsible for any live performance and had the power to censor plays. Michael produced plays that challenged the status quo. His first play The Connection was about heroin addicts waiting for a fix and it shocked English audiences. He produced Yoko Ono and then the Happenings. He did the first all-nude production Oh! Calcutta! He continued to challenge authority until the Lord Chamberlains office was abolished. He was a great risk-taking producer – people went to Michael when they knew nobody else would support them.

You interview quite a few of his famous close friends. What did you find was most similar about their experiences with and sentiment for Michael White?

Without exception, every person I interviewed had a great love for Michael White. Many of them said that they owed the success of their careers to him – that he had discovered them and promoted them first.

He has had quite a turbulent career. How did Australians play a part in the success and White’s reinvention?

Michael has had many Australian connections. In his heyday he was in a relationship with Lyndall Hobbs who had worked with Channel 9 as a presenter before moving to London to work as a television producer. The 10 years of their relationship were described as an incredible time probably of his greatest successes. Lyndall introduced Michael to Jim Sharman and Brian Thomson who were working with Richard O’Brien on a small musical that Michael produced which became The Rocky Horror Show. He also met Barry Humphries through Lyndall and produced Housewife Superstar which had great success in the West End.

How does White live out his life now? Did he reveal any wishes or regrets?

Michael doesn’t reveal anything but he made it clear to me that he has no regrets. He doesn’t look back. He lives life to the fullest every day. He has had some health issues over the past few years but that hasn’t stopped him from attending great lunches and dinners and the annual festival and party circuit. Earlier this month when his doctors advised him not to make the 24-hour flight to Sydney he decided instead to attend the screening of our film at the Biografilm Festival in Bologna and enjoyed some time in Italy.

What do you think is the overriding message of Michael White’s story and ultimately this documentary of his life and times?

I believe Michael’s story is an inspiration for anyone working in the arts to trust their instincts, take risks on unique and interesting work, develop talent, and have fun doing it! For Michael it was never just about the show, it was also about the party before the show and the party after the show, and then thinking about the next show! He just never stopped. And his body of work is a testament to his unfailing energy and determination to back talent. As Kate Moss said “He’s an old school classic. They don’t make them like that anymore.”

The Last Impresario is in limited cinemas nationally from June 26. Click here to watch a trailer for the film.

Michael White and Kate Moss
Michael White and Kate Moss
Michael White with Susan Sarandon
Michael White with Susan Sarandon
Michael White with Nicole Kidman
Michael White with Nicole Kidman



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