Greta Scacchi has worked with Hollywood's biggest producers but she stars in a new film about the 'most famous producer you've never heard of'.
GRETA Scacchi was born in Milan and at 15 her family moved to Australia where she started acting, a career that's taken her around the world. She now lives in England but regularly returns to make movies. Her Aussie credits include The Coca-Cola Kid (shot partly in the Blue Mountains), Burke & Wills, Turtle Beach, Cosi, Looking for Alibrandi and The Book of Revelation.
Easy to see why we enthusiastically claim her as our own, though she's not.
She's worked with big names: Robert Altman (The Player), Sydney Pollack (Presumed Innocent) and three times with Ismail Merchant, of famed Merchant Ivory (Heat and Dust, Jefferson in Paris and Cotton Mary).
And she's worked with someone most of us were never likely to hear of, that is, until The Last Impresario, a documentary currently in previews and officially opening June 26 in selected Sydney cinemas, put together by the Scacchi family friend Gracie Otto, daughter of the actor Barry Otto, younger sister of model Miranda and actor Socratis (he was just in Carlotta).
Scacchi worked with Michael White on the 1987 film White Mischief.
The documentary began in an odd fashion. Gracie was in Cannes and bumped into this strangely charismatic but frail man to whom everybody was gravitating. Short end of the story: it was Michael White. Gracie's curiosity got the better of her and she jumped headlong into some research and found that this quiet unassuming guy with so many stories to tell about stars and producers and agents was telling the truth. Turns out he was one of the most influential producers for decades on the London stage, in the arts and, finally, for a while in the movies.
Cementing his reputation, there was no end to the list of big-name stars more than willing to record their debt to him in front of Gracie's camera, including John Cleese, Anna Wintour, Yoko Ono, Kate Moss and an Australian contingent, Naomi Watts, Barry Humphries, Rachel Ward, Jim Sharman . . . and Greta Scacchi. Jack Nicholson, too, though, typically, he wouldn't do it on film.
Scacchi was happy to give her time to chat about the documentary. She was on the phone from her home in Sussex.
You've worked with celebrated producers and directors, from David Putnam to Robert Altman to Ismail Merchant – where does Michael White fit on the spectrum?
Ah, what a character. He's still a rock’n’roller through and through, despite being hobbled these days by a walking stick. Always wearing round glasses in bright colours, like rock'n'rollers of the '70s. He likes art deco and knitted jumpers but his personality is not at all loud. He was always very much the observer, rather than pushing his own personality. He knew everybody and was always at the cutting edge, from the late '60s right through, even until recently. And he'd still be going if he hadn’t exhausted all his angels for funding! He has that gambling spirit that every producer must have. He'd put his nose to the ground and he had this conviction about talent. He'd pick a show from the fringe and put into a big theatre in London.
Gracie is using your phrase, "The most famous person you've never heard of", on the poster. Despite his achievements and circle of friends White certainly managed a low profile, unlike some superstar producers.
The only producers who are superstars are those who want that reputation. Producers don’t need be photographed, we don’t need to know what they look like. It's only if they're fastidious about their own self-promotion; we're not really fastidious about remembering who they are. Having said that, Michael White was very much present in the social pages. He was always in front of a camera with a blonde on each arm.
What did he have that gave famous people the confidence to trust him and work with him?
He had an antenna for talent and didn't impose his personality. He was comfortable with royals and aristocrats but he was not at all snobbish or judgmental. He was genuinely passionate about the arts, all sorts of arts. Theatre, film, music, dance, and the film stuff which came a bit later.
When I was 20 he took me to see a RADA [Royal Academy of Dramatic Art] graduation show. He liked expensive restaurants, usually someone else was paying. But he was very generous. One night he had eight of us around and he'd baked a fish pie sometime between a busy day at the office and setting off to a show.
Michael had a great respect for creative people and would suck from their instincts.
He put together a great cast for your film White Mischief. Charles Dance, John Hurt, Geraldine Chaplin, a young Hugh Grant (27), Sarah Miles, Trevor Howard. [Even Scacchi's then-boyfriend, Split Enz' Tim Finn in a cameo as the bandleader.] And you were billed at the top. How did White treat you? How did you find him?
I was 27 when we did that but wind back a few years to when I came out of drama school. He offered me my first job, a short film with Rowan Atkinson directed by Michael's girlfriend Lyndall Hobbs, a famous Australian "It" girl in London. He gave me my first break with this and then he introduced me to Ismail Merchant who put me in Heat and Dust, my really big break and still, 30 years later, my reputation is based on that film.
A couple of years later he gave me a copy of the book White Mischief [by James Fox], a journalistic account of the famous Happy Valley murder case in Africa. He asked me what I thought of it. His business was tapping into how the public would react and he had a great respect for creative people and would suck from their instincts. He always mixed with young people to keep tabs on what was happening. It was one of the reasons he liked the company of young women, apart from the other obvious reasons. He never let age alienate him from what the young audience wanted.
Watch Greta in White Mischief (0.27):
It took him a couple of years to rustle together the finance. Later it was David Puttnam who actually became the producer. He was head of Columbia at the time and had a name. He bailed us out because we'd got to Africa and in our first week some of Michael's angels pulled out! There wasn't the money to continue until David Puttnam threw us a lifejacket.
So it hasn't always been easy for Michael White but he managed to bounce back all the time.
He has a huge audacity and it's that audacity and appetite for adventure which makes a producer exciting because he'll take risks and taking those risks means you can make great discoveries, and make history. But it's not safe and you’re gonna get your fingers burned, which he did many a time.
Ian interviews Greta about Michael White on 2UE (4.08):
Michael was in and out of expensive restaurants and luxurious houses and kept company with people who had fortunes. At the time, I thought they were all air-heads. But I couldn't dismiss him.
When I was young I was very judgmental, very dismissive of people who were showy. I was trendy left-wing and he was in and out of very expensive restaurants and luxurious houses and he kept company with people who had fortunes. I thought they were all air-heads. But I couldn't dismiss him. You couldn't pigeonhole him and his interest, understanding and flair for the common man was inherent. He was to the manor born but without snobbery. He was egalitarian. There was no aristocratic hierarchy with him when it came to talent.
You know, you're never really aware of the hallmarks of your era when you're living through it. It's only in retrospect that you can isolate the iconic moments of style in a decade. Only when you look back does it come into relief. What Gracie has done with this film, through "Chalky" [White's nickname], she has encapsulated something that at the time was very familiar to those of us who lived through it but it's extraordinary that a young woman like Gracie, who's a pal of my daughter's and so from a whole different generation, has the quality and the sensitivity to recognise that there was something so attractive and dramatic about this basically old man she bumped into. Extraordinary. ■
Trailer for The Last Impresario (01.46):
The Last Impresario is currently in previews and officially opens June 26.
■ Greta Scacchi on IMDb
■ The Last Impresario on IMDb
■ The Last Impresario homepage
■ The Last Impresario at Umbrella Entertainment
■ Read Ian's other interviews:
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