Photos | HBO / Universal Pictures
Peter Dinklage and Jamie Dornan star in “My Dinner with Hervé,” a look at the life of French actor Hervé Villechaize, costar of the hit ‘70s TV series “Fantasy Island,” who took his own life in 1993 at the age of 50. Benedict Cumberbatch voices Dr. Seuss’ “The Grinch” in the latest remake of the timeless Christmas classic.
Any starring role for Peter Dinklage is a gift to the viewer. He is a magnetic, complex actor — I have been a fan since 2003’s “The Station Agent” — and of course he is the best character on HBO’s dragon-based bloodbath, “Game of Thrones.” Dinklage spent years fighting for the role of another dwarf actor, Hervé Villechaize, and brings the eccentric, tragic man to life in “My Dinner with Hervé,” which tells the story of his life through a single evening’s encounter with a down-on-his-luck journalist.
That journalist, Sacha Gervasi, is the writer and director of this film, and the night portrayed onscreen really happened. When Villechaize committed suicide less than a week later, Gervasi submitted a lengthy article that was cut to a brief puff piece. He felt he owed this full autobiographical treatment to Villechaize, and this film is the result.
There is indeed some extraordinarily juicy material to work with. Villechaize spent his youth submitting to endless painful medical treatments because of his father’s obsession with trying to help his condition. His father smothered him with love and affection trying to “fix him,” while his cold and pragmatic mother essentially rejected him as a curse. His conviction that he would not live long led to an early streak of hedonism that only grew with time. He studied painting and enjoyed luck with the ladies, then moved to New York City after a brutal attack by some hateful thugs.
In America, he felt he could find work as an actor and, armed with a knife, barged into the office of the man who would become his friend and agent for life, played by David Strathairn. He offers a window into and an alternative interpretation of the stories Villechaize tells about his days on “Fantasy Island,” which were marked by tumult and scandal of his own making.
The events of Villechaize’s life are interesting and Dinklage is superb, but the script itself falters at times, and the flashbacks’ told-to-a-journalist format is hokey. Villechaize was a hedonistic womanizer who drank too much and acted outlandishly and abusively on and off the set, and ultimately lost his battle with some very powerful and rather legitimate demons. But as extraordinary as the life of Hervé Villechaize was, this film is pretty standard biographical fare.
What I found interesting was considering the life of actor Peter Dinklage, who is obviously a dwarf, in terms of the life of actor Hervé Villechaize, also, obviously, a dwarf. As an implied conversation between two actors with a very specific and unusual commonality, there is a lot to unpack.
I’ve read several interviews with Dinklage over the years, and he is a very principled man with regard to his condition, turning down any role that exploited it, even in the leanest years of his career. Villechaize, years before Dinklage, was the opposite, capitalizing on what people found amusing about his size.
To see Dinklage bring such humanity and pathos to such a complexly unhappy character was the most profound aspect of the film. Villechaize teases and goads the journalist (Jamie Dornan) all night, trying to make him drink even though he knows the young man’s newly won sobriety is hanging by a thread. His actions are despicable but his motivation is a very real pain, and the performances in the film effectively express this, even when the script falls short.
“My Dinner with Hervé” is now screening and streaming on HBO.