Year Released: 2008
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 80 minutes
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“Hotel Gramercy Park” is about the passing of one era and the starting of another in the life of a lesser-known New York institution. Death-and-rebirth is a common theme in films, but less so in documentaries, and with this one’s fixation mostly on the “death” part, it delivers as a historical document of the last vestiges of a particular time and place, and the “passing parade” that carries on after we’ve moved along.
Like the city itself, the hotel (built in 1925 and managed by generations of the same family from 1958 to today) started off grand, kept it up for a long time and slowly rested on its laurels until, truth be told, it was only a satire of its former self. Home to the only private park (!) in the city and favored by rock stars and other celebrities for decades (complete with the requisite introduction of drugs into the culture of the hotel), the place slowly fell apart under the benign neglect of its owners, long-term tenants and celebrity visitors, who as you might expect are all a bunch of wonderfully colourful Noo Yoik-type characters.
We pick up the story of the hotel at the tail end of it’s “first life.” The family who owns it (and lived there, recognising only much later what a mistake it was to raise a family in a hotel) is forced to sell due to tax issues arising from the drift of management and the death of the Weissberg patriarch. Former Studio 54 owner Ian Schrager swoops in and plans a major makeover, disgruntling the long-term tenants (who don’t have to leave, and some refuse to), worrying the neighbors and forcing the remaining Weissbergs to (at least temporarily) give up the only home they’ve ever known. Director Douglas Keeve spends the first half mostly documenting the fascinating but tragedy-filled history of the Weissbergs, the hotel and some its more famous moments through the eyes of the youngest members of the now-forlorn clan, before changing focus to the inadvertently comedic tenants and the renovation. Finally gaining Schrager’s full cooperation in the last act, his delicate balancing act of trying to appease the old guard while reinventing the place finally takes front-and-center in the film.
What emerges is a metaphor for New York City itself, and a lot of what makes it special; the constant reinvention conflicting with the stubborn, uniquely American war-generation brand of moxie you thought only existed in old movies. Two 90-plus twin sisters sipping martinis in the hotel bar bemoaning the new generation and mourning the way of life they knew, a songwriter who’s been holed up in the hotel for 30 years writes “Everything I Need is in Manhattan” (which is damn catchy!) as his world is literally torn apart around him, Karl Lagerfeld looking back wistfully but facing the future – it’s an obituary to a generation of New Yorkers that are giving way to a new breed. The main disappointment is that the film ends just as the “next chapter” is beginning — opening day of the “new” Gramercy Park (the makeover has generally met with critical and traveller raves since then).
The footage comes from various sources and as such it’s of variable quality, but capturing these un-self-conscious characters in a period of transition reveals a lot about them, the city, the hotel and, ultimately, the audience. Even thousands of miles away from New York, through “Hotel Gramercy Park” we get a glimpse at just what makes NYC so special; it’s our own stories, but writ larger.
Posted on February 9, 2009 in Reviews by Charles Martin
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