One wishes Always at the Carlyle had dug past “Entertainment Tonight”-level glitz to reveal more of its subject’s real treasures.
In his documentary work, director Matthew Miele has shown that his first priority as a filmmaker is celebrity. That worked fine for Harry Benson: Shoot First, about the photographer assigned to cover The Beatles’ first American tour, but not so much for the vapid Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s, about the fabled Fifth Avenue department store. Part of the difference may be that The Beatles are accessible to everyone, while the expensive wares of Bergdorf Goodman are well above the pay grade of most readers. Miele’s latest film, Always at the Carlyle, profiles the Upper East Side hotel that is one of New York City’s most iconic institutions, one defined by an old-fashioned elegance, a steadfast consistency, and, naturally, celebrity. It’s a nice place to visit, but most of those reading this will never be able to afford to stay there.
Anyone interested in New York lore will be happy about interviews with theater legend Elaine Stritch as well as brief segments on hotel history. Considerable screen time is given to such long-time employees as Dwight Owsley, who was the hotel’s concierge for 36 years. Unfortunately, even this vivid character seems to be valued as much for what he can tell us about Jack Nicholson or Princess Diana as for his own worth.
But the movie is dominated by fanboy fawning, announced from the start by commemorative photos of famous guests President John F. Kennedy, Princess Diana and Frank Sinatra. Copious testimonials come from frequent guests such as George Clooney, Sofia Coppola and a heavily accented European visitor whose accent turns her praise of “atmosphere” into what sounds for all the world like “utmost fear.” Worst is the endorsement of author Fran Lebowitz, who laments that the Carlyle is an emblem of a dying city, one in which visits to the Metropolitan Museum of Art are forever marred by “a billion people from Kansas,” as if the movie didn’t already wear its class consciousness on its sleeve.
Always at the Carlyle didn’t have to be just a feature-length episode of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.” The movie is more than half over before it even gets to the hotel’s legendary music venue Café Carlyle, whose reputation was largely made by jazz singer Bobby Short. What’s sad is that such slick stargazing could have been avoided entirely; just expand segments on hotel staff, history and interiors like Bemelmans Bar, designed by the author of the much-beloved Madeleine series of children’s books.
In fact, there’s a lesson for the filmmaker right here in the too-brief segment on Short. As the film notes, after the jazz singer died in 2005 and his belongings were auctioned off, a woman purchased Short’s book collection for $5,000, refusing a subsequent offer of over a million. When the sentimental fan finally began to examine the collection’s contents, she found personal letters from composer Cole Porter and other invaluable artifacts of a long-gone age. One wishes Always at the Carlyle had dug past “Entertainment Tonight”-level glitz to reveal more of its subject’s real treasures.