Director Matthew Miele seems to favor a certain type of documentary—ones where history and celebrity collide but also blend beautifully together into stories of institutions, with such captivating works as Crazy about Tiffany’s, Harry Benson: Shoot First, and Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s.
But his latest, Always at the Carlyle, might be my absolute favorite, if only because he shows a mastery of doing a type of upstairs-downstairs storytelling—treating the long-time staff of the luxury New York City hotel with a well-earned reputation for discretion and attention to detail. As a result, conversations with sophisticated concierges, knowledgeable bartenders and waiters, tight-lipped elevator operators, and diligent housekeeping agents are often more informative and interesting than the overwhelming number of celebrity guests the hotel has hosted.
For as much secrecy as there is surrounding the Carlyle, people don’t seem to mind talking about how wonderful and homey the place can be. The history of the hotel is thoroughly researched and detailed—from alleged trysts between JFK and Marilyn Monroe to swinging ’70s parties with Jack Nicholson (a favorite guest among the many employees) and Warren Beatty to more tasteful visits by Kate Middleton and Prince William on their first visit to New York (William’s mother also stayed at the establishment). There are also interviews with loyal (albeit, less famous) guests, who discuss the hotel numerous amenities and interesting quirks as an old but well-maintained location (the elevators are supposedly nearing 100 years old).
One gets a sense that Miele’s intent is to immerse us in the Carlyle more than simply have people talking about it. Each interview seems to take place in a different room in the building, located on the Upper East Side. Still, the names he lines up to tell really charming stories about the building and staff are great if you collect such tales. Easily the all-time favorite among the staff is George Clooney, who is in the film so much, I almost wish the entire documentary had been told from his perspective.
Testimonials also feature the likes of Anjelica Houston, Wes Anderson (who was inspired to make The Grand Budapest Hotel after numerous stays at the Carlyle), Tommy Lee Jones, Harrison Ford, Jon Hamm, Naomi Campbell, Sofia Coppola, Bill Murray, Alan Cumming, Jeff Goldblum, Lenny Kravitz, Rita Wilson, Paul Shaffer, Anthony Bourdain, and the late Elaine Stritch, who lived at the Carlyle for many years, as did several celebrities and other upper-class types.
I was especially interested in the profiles of the hotel’s various bars, lounges and restaurants, all of which hosted impressive line-ups of guests and audience members. If you’ve ever seen Hannah and Her Sisters, you’ve seen the late Bobby Short playing his regular gig in front of the visiting elite. That film’s director, Woody Allen, continues to play with his New Orleans jazz band at the Carlyle Cafe.
In many ways, the Carlyle is a place where time stands still, so it should come as no surprise that many of the interview subjects are over the age of 50, but there’s also something wonderfully timeless about its hidden corners, the staff’s efficiency and knowledge, and the commitment to making a stay there feel like home…granted, with one of the greatest views of Central Park you’ll ever lay eyes upon.
Always at the Carlyle is part escapist star gazing, part intersection with the world at large, and a whole lot of fun through and through.
The film opens Friday for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.