Hervé Villechaize is described early in HBO’s new film My Dinner with Hervé as “the most famous dwarf in the world.” The scene is set a decade after Villechaize’s 1983 firing from his iconic role on Fantasy Island as the bell-ringing Tattoo (“De plane! De plane!”) and two decades after he first became famous as the Bond villain’s henchman Nick Nack in The Man with the Golden Gun. Yet the honorific, while both dismissive and outdated, still fit him after all that time. Fantasy Island and Tattoo were just that beloved, and there were so few opportunities for a little person to become famous in Hollywood. Usually, there was only room for one little person at a time to get sustained work, whether Villechaize, Billy Barty before him or Verne Troyer (whose casting in the Austin Powers films was a nod to Nick Nack) after. And often, they were hired less for their acting than as glorified props or sight gags. Late in the HBO movie, when Villechaize’s behavior and salary demands prompt producer Aaron Spelling to consider firing him, Spelling muses, “Perhaps another little man,” as if all that matters about his show’s second lead is his height.
Peter Dinklage, who plays the title role in My Dinner With Hervé (it premieres Saturday), today holds the unofficial title Villechaize once did, but in a very different way. As the clever imp Tyrion Lannister on Game of Thrones, he is the most recognizable actor on the most popular show in the world. The nature of the character called for someone of Dinklage’s physical stature, but he’s also the emotional heart of the series and gives its most acclaimed performance (three Emmys and counting). Many of the roles in his robust career reference his size but some don’t. Most of them could be played by anyone — provided they had Dinklage’s skill, comic timing and dramatic range.
My Dinner with Hervé was written (with a shared story credit by Sean Macaulay) and directed by former journalist Sacha Gervasi (Hitchcock), who based it on his own experience interviewing Villechaize over a wild week in L.A. shortly before the actor committed suicide in September of 1993. Here, the interview has been condensed into one memorable and reckless night, while Gervasi has fictionalized himself as recovering alcoholic Danny Tate (Fifty Shades‘ Jamie Dornan), sent to L.A. for one last chance to salvage his career.
It is, in most ways, a fairly standard HBO biopic(*): evocative in media res opening, followed by the subject reflecting back on highlights of his celebrated life as he approaches the end of it. As Danny, Dornan makes a fine and necessarily sweaty foil for Dinklage, though the paralleling of his own ruined work and home life to Villechaize’s never quite works. The details of Hervé’s mostly true story are much more elaborate and weighty than the more familiar, invented material about how Danny’s drinking ended his marriage.
(*) HBO Films’ output, particularly in the celebrity biography field, has felt formulaic for quite some time, with rare exceptions like Behind the Candelabra that were developed elsewhere. My Dinner‘s biggest diversion from the routine is its length, about 15 minutes longer than most of its peers, which adds some welcome depth to its subject.
But goodness gracious is Dinklage something to see.
The movie starts out viewing him the way the world treated Villechaize: as an object of curiosity or amusement. Danny’s editor’s final instruction: “Oh, and the dwarf piece? Make it funny.” We hear Dinklage doing an impression of Hervé’s high-pitched, nigh-indecipherable French accent(*), and see his hands and other body parts in motion before we are allowed a good, long look at his smirking face. He is putting on a show for Danny from the start — he carries around a gilded knife like the one Nick Nack wielded, using it as both weapon and utensil. He enjoys having someone pay attention to him and his story for the first time in a long time.
(*) I would strongly recommend watching with the captions on, which was not an option on the review screener.
But what starts as performance quickly turns into confession, as Danny pushes and prods his new companion into talking about private and painful topics. We see Hervé’s well-meaning father, a doctor, subject his young son to barbaric and painful experimental treatments in hopes of reversing his dwarfism. We watch Hervé blow up both his marriage (to a Fantasy Island guest star, whom the movie can’t decide whether to label a gold-digger or not) and his big TV payday, and hear him wrestle again and again with the notion of being a spectacle first, a man a distant second.
“When the world realize you are a real person and not just an amusing sight, they get scared,” he laments.
It’s a searing and vulnerable turn from Dinklage, who spars not only with Dornan but David Strathairn as Hervé’s longtime agent and Andy Garcia as Fantasy Island‘s aloof star Ricardo Montalban. (Garcia doesn’t bother with verbal mimicry, since his voice is much lower than Montalban’s but he still evokes the smooth gravitas of Mr. Roarke.) At times, Dinklage seems almost overqualified, as his raw ability, charisma and expressiveness make the film’s recreated Nick Nack and Tattoo footage look better than the originals. Villechaize had a striking screen presence and sheer likability but he was also a painter who half-fell into acting. Dinklage, though, is the goods, which he proves as much in how he plays the sad and mostly forgotten Hervé as he does in scenes of the actor’s beloved and debauched late-Seventies incarnation.
Dinklage is a better actor than the man he’s playing. But he also had the good fortune to grow up in a slightly more enlightened age, and to arrive in a version of the movie business where a small film like his breakthrough, The Station Agent, could get made and then distributed wide enough to lead to other opportunities. He’s been able to be famous but also respected for his craft, and to pursue passion projects like this. He’s gotten to be a real person in public and not the amusing sideshow Villechaize feared he always was.
When Game of Thrones is done next year, Dinklage will have enough cachet that he could go the rest of his career without playing a role explicitly written for a little person. In that sense, his life has been worlds apart from Hervé Villechaize’s. But there are moments of profound vulnerability throughout My Dinner With Hervé suggesting that he recognizes what his predecessor went through enough to play it very well.