Documenting her parents' marriage — for better and worse

In 'Phyllis and Harold,' Cindy Kleine (pictured) looks at the 'hideous' marriage of her parents, which lasted 59 years. In "Phyllis and Harold," Cindy Kleine (pictured) looks at the "hideous" marriage of her parents, which lasted 59 years. (Tom Herde for The Boston Globe)
By Loren King
Globe Correspondent / July 18, 2010

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Perhaps her own happy marriage provided filmmaker Cindy Kleine with the prism through which to view her parents’ “hideous’’ one. That’s Kleine’s description of the late Phyllis and Harold Kleine’s 59-year union, one that she’s chronicled with journalistic inquisitiveness and no small dose of humor in the documentary “Phyllis and Harold’’ (it opens Friday at the Coolidge Corner Theatre). As Kleine digs beneath the façade of her middle class, Jewish, Long Island upbringing to reveal deceit, delusion, and denial, “Phyllis and Harold’’ plays like Ingmar Bergman’s “Scenes From a Marriage’’ starring Tennessee Williams-esque characters.

Kleine has been married for 12 years to director, playwright, and actor Andre Gregory, who produced the film (the pair will engage in a post-screening discussion with the audience July 25 at 3 p.m.). Her parents have hovered over the relationship from the start. Gregory recalls that when they met, Kleine was finishing “ ’Til Death Do Us Part,’’ her 1998 short film about her parents that served as a precursor to “Phyllis and Harold.’’

“I saw ‘ ’Til Death Do Us Part’ as a blur because we were making out in the editing room,’’ laughs Gregory, sipping tea with Kleine in their Truro home (they divide their time between New York City and Cape Cod). Surrounded by wildflowers, the house is spacious but understated: books line the walls, a litter box sits in the hall. (“I don’t have kids; I have cats,’’ says Kleine. Gregory has a grown son from his first marriage.) The couple talk about what movie they’ll see over the weekend — perhaps Tilda Swinton’s “I Am Love,’’ a recent favorite that begs to be revisited on a bigger screen. Angular and full of easy charm at age 76, Gregory excuses himself to prepare for a phone call from friend and frequent collaborator Wallace Shawn; he’s planning to direct three of Shawn’s plays at New York’s Public Theater next year. Kleine, 52, seems the more reserved of the pair, but she’s engaging and animated when talking about the labor of love that was “Phyllis and Harold.’’

It was Gregory who encouraged Kleine to submit “ ’Til Death Do Us Part’’ to film festivals and, after some success, urged her to expand it into a feature. Kleine labored over “Phyllis and Harold’’ for a dozen years, knowing it could not be released until after her father’s death (he died suddenly in 2003) since it reveals a family secret that she felt would have been too painful for him to see. Unlike the rapport and shared interests so evident between Kleine and Gregory, Phyllis and Harold seemed to exist as strangers in separate marriages. He was a hard-working dentist who escaped the poverty of New York’s Lower East Side and thought his wife a “wonderful woman.’’ She was a fashionable beauty and a frustrated artist who felt she’d married the wrong man for the wrong reasons. The irony, Gregory points out, is that Harold’s prolific home movies and thoughtful photographs reveal “a creative man’’ who may have been more interesting than the “vulgar dentist’’ his unhappy wife perceived.

“Phyllis and Harold’’ fits in with a spate of recent documentaries such as “51 Birch Street,’’ “Must Read After My Death,’’ “Capturing the Friedmans,’’ and “Crazy Love’’ that probe the darker side of post-World War II suburban, middle-class families. For a generation of filmmakers now hitting middle age, it should be no surprise that they would look close to home, at ordinary lives that often hid extraordinary family secrets. It’s also a generation that’s fast disappearing.

“They are all gone,’’ says Kleine of her parents and their peers. “If I hadn’t told it, no one would know their story. I am endlessly fascinated by the mystery of life — the hope of youth; then you are old and dead in the blink of an eye.’’ Her film uses her father’s photographs and home movies, on-camera commentary by Kleine herself, and interviews with Kleine’s older sister, Erica “Ricky’’ Kleine. As with many dysfunctional families, Kleine points out that Ricky’s perspective on their childhood is quite different from her own. The sisters were not close as children, but as they matured, and through the filmmaking process, they forged a bond. “We remember different parents. But she loves the film,’’ says Cindy Kleine. “I think it helped her; it objectified the situation so now we can laugh at it.’’

For Gregory, who confesses to seeing his wife’s film “70 or 80 times,’’ the personal story speaks to a generation of marriages. “I love the way it depicts many couples of that generation, where the women married men for security — there were not many alternatives — and then felt trapped and lived in contempt of these men,’’ he says. “Being older myself, I am also deeply moved by the pathos of these young people becoming old, the changing geography of the face. Having had a mother and a father who were raging narcissists, I was fascinated by Phyllis’s narcissism and her willingness to spill the beans.’’

For Kleine, delving into the personal for raw material is how she learned filmmaking. She studied with influential documentary film pioneer Richard Leacock and Glorianna Davenport, cofounder of the MIT Media Lab, during the heyday of the now defunct MIT Film/Video Section in the late 1970s. Kleine, who eventually earned her BFA from Tufts University, was a student at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts when she began taking film classes at MIT in an exchange program. “I holed up there and spent a lot of time. I remember a two-week documentary workshop with Robert Frank — I never knew he made films. It was an amazing time and an amazing community.’’ Besides Davenport and Leacock, Kleine credits instructor John Gianvito, who would go on to program the Harvard Film Archive and direct several acclaimed films, with influencing a generation of film students. “His film history courses exposed me to European cinema, especially the work of [Russian director Andrei] Tarkovsky,’’ she says.

The story of her parents’ marriage may be behind her, but Kleine is about to tackle another film memoir, this time collaborating with her husband. The couple just returned from Gregory’s hometown of Los Angeles where they shot footage for a documentary about Gregory’s family and its influence on his life and work.

“I have no problem talking, as you might have gathered,’’ says Gregory, whose musings across a table with Wally Shawn turned “My Dinner With Andre’’ into an unlikely indie smash in 1981. “I love examining personal relationships even when it’s in public.’’

“Andre lights up when the camera goes on,’’ adds Kleine.

“Phyllis and Harold’’ hit the festival circuit after a successful screening as part of the Boston Jewish Film Festival in November 2008. That led to international bookings and a recent DVD release. But for Kleine, the success is bittersweet. Phyllis Kleine died in 2006 and never saw the film’s final cut.

“Every time I go to an opening and see the title on the marquee, I think how much my mother would have loved it. The film is critical of her, but she wouldn’t see it that way at all,’’ says Kleine. “She would see it as a homage; she’d be thrilled people were paying such close attention to her.’’

Loren King can be reached at

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