We know what you're thinking: Why see a movie about a posh Manhattan hotel that most of us could never afford to stay in even for one night? It's not just the fascination of watching how the one-percent lives; it's because this storied 88-year-old hotel, filled with impossibly glamorous ghosts from the past, radiates an elegance that seems like an anomaly in this shallow age of Trump-style glitz. The POTUS has been spied on the premises, only to be overheard saying, "This place is a joke." Unless style, sophistication and grace make you double over in laughter, that's just more of his typical #FakeNews.
Always at the Carlyle, the dazzling, sometimes hilarious and surprisingly emotional documentary from writer-director Matthew Miele (Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf's, Harry Benson: Shoot First!), is not some advertorial to persuade suckers to blow their stash on the chance to rub elbows with kings and rock stars. It's a look at the hard work of maintaining refinement in a world that increasingly fails to see the point.
Miele takes us right through those revolving doors on Madison Avenue, letting a host of boldface names – George Clooney, Harrison Ford, Wes Anderson, Sofia Coppola, Anthony Bourdain, Roger Federer, Lenny Kravitz – weighing in on why the hotel is the Gotham-deco lodging of choice. The former Han Solo is a particular hoot, claiming to be amazed at the luxury on view when he paid $1100 a night for a room with a peeling radiator. That's a far cry from the opulent splendor afforded Prince William and Kate Middleton on their first visit trip to New York in 2014 when the Carlyle – a favorite of the Prince's mother, Diana – became a must stop.
Still, it's the institution's staffers, many of whom have been serving their guests for decades, who provide the most delicious fun. Pay close attention to long-time concierge Dwight Owsley, bellhop Danny Harnett and Tommy Rowles, who’s been tending bar at Bemelmans for half a century. Named after Ludwig Bemelmans, the artist who drew the Madeline books for children, the hotel's in-house drinking establishment has become a global attraction just to see the Bemelmans drawings on its walls. And the Café Carlyle, where singer-pianist Bobby Short entertained sophisticates from 1968 until his death in 2005, is still a haven for performers; Alan Cumming talks of breaking the rules by posing nude for an album cover outside the Cafe's doors.
Wickedness, in fact, remains an integral part of the Carlyle mystique – famous for its discretion, the staff insists that nothing will be revealed. Still, the doc lets more than a few naughty details sneak through about such favorite guests as Jack Nicholson, Mick Jagger and Naomi Campbell. And what of those alleged secret tunnels through which Marilyn Monroe was reportedly swept before arriving at JFK's 34th floor suite after his 1961 inauguration? If only those walls could talk.
Happily, in this movie they do, thanks to Miele's personal touch that blends a scrappy, playful style with unfakeable affection. And the gifted director of photography Justin Bare lights each room and glittering interviewee with the burnished beauty befitting an iconic subject. In the end, Always at the Carlyle not only captures the intangible essence of a one-of-a-kind hotel but the soul of a time and place, a piece of Manhattan that literally and figuratively reaches for the stars. The Carlyle is more than a hotel made of brick and mortar – like this indispensable movie, it's the stuff that dreams are made of.