Arts

Movie Review

Class counts at the Carlyle

“Always at the Carlyle” features interviews with celebrities such as George Clooney and Naomi Campell as well as hotel employees.
Justin Bare
“Always at the Carlyle” features interviews with celebrities such as George Clooney and Naomi Campell as well as hotel employees.

What happens at the Carlyle stays at the Carlyle.

That’s the Carlyle Hotel in Manhattan, where discretion has always been a key part of catering to high-profile guests, according to the employees interviewed in Matthew Miele’s documentary “Always at the Carlyle,” opening here on Friday.

Even if the statute of limitations has expired on many of those secrets, don’t expect much in the way of saucy revelations, unless ancient tales about JFK and Marilyn Monroe’s trysts can still shock. Though sometimes it seems like a promotional video, the film offers a glimpse into the vagaries of class, culture, celebrity, and social mores since the hotel was first established back in 1930.

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Not that there aren’t some interesting stories and details. Like, why that name? Answer: The founder’s daughter was a fan of the 19th-century Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle.

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A table in the cafe is where John F. Kennedy Jr. had his breakfast before his fatal plane crash in 1999. A desk clerk recalls how she broke into tears the time that, after a late shift, she was allowed to sleep over in the Princess Diana suite. (You can have the same experience for $10,000 a night.) A former actor now turned Carlyle elevator operator, who once starred in an off-off-Broadway play in which Bruce Willis played a tiny part, describes how he tried to get Willis to recognize him while he was taking the star up to his floor in the hotel.

As the last two anecdotes indicate, the Carlyle, like New York City itself, is a place where the elite and hoi polloi can rub shoulders. And where the elite can rub shoulders with each other; a maître d’ recalls when Richard Gere and his family and Paul McCartney and his family entered the restaurant at the same time and he didn’t know whom to greet first. He went with the ex-Beatle.

Nonetheless, though the concierges, bellmen, housekeeping personnel, and the seamstresses who embroider the names of special guests on their bed linen (Michael Jackson’s son paradoxically had “Blanket” stitched on his pillow case) have warm memories and charming tales to tell of their encounters with famous people from Harry Truman to Prince Harry, the Carlyle is no melting pot.

Tourism might change that. The writer Fran Liebowitz foresees a day when the exclusivity of the Carlyle will go the way of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “There, a billion people from Kansas are in line ahead of you,” she grouses. “Even if you make a phone call and get ahead of the line, you’re still with a billion people from Kansas.” 

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That should go over well in the Heartland.

The Carlyle is a throwback to a classier — and perhaps more class -
conscious — era. In style it is reminiscent of sets from a 1930s Fred Astaire musical with maybe a dash of the Overlook Hotel from “The Shining.” Like the less reputable celebrity haunt on the other side of town, the Chelsea Hotel, the Carlyle has inspired artists. Wes Anderson, admiring the frescoes by Ludwig Bemelmans in the room that bears the painter’s name, explains how the ambience influenced him in making his film “The Grand Budapest Hotel.”

But not everyone agrees that the place deserves its mythic status. One longtime employee recalls what the pre-presidential Donald Trump said about it when he visited once. “It’s the most prestigious hotel in New York. It’s a joke.”

 

★½

ALWAYS AT THE CARLYLE

Written and directed by Matthew Miele. At West Newton beginning May 18. 91 minutes. PG-13 (some suggestive content, drug references, and brief partial nudity).

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.