There’s a certain facet of people who love to swoon over the elegant (and with it, the expensive). I’m one of those people who has justified staying at an expensive hotel because of the “ambiance,” the knowledge that it’s where the celebrities hang. I’m not proud of it, but it’s who I am. And documentarian Andrew Miele’s understands people like me, as his feature Always at the Carlyle is an utterly charming tale about a hotel that caters to the cream of the crop. Always at the Carlyle could easily act as a 90-minute advertisement for a hotel that 90% of people will never be able to stay a night in, but what he does is cater to those who love history and nostalgia.
Described by those who have spent their lives in the hotel, The Carlyle isn’t a place catering to the hip, and though a suite can start at $10,000 a night it isn’t hoping to attract the wealthy (a statement that might have an air of false humility to it). What many bring up is how mysterious The Carlyle is; how it’s air of gentility and old-school values just aren’t found anywhere in the world, especially not in the hustle and bustle of New York City.
The Carlyle has played host to anyone and everyone of significance, from Paul McCartney and Princess Diana, to Michael Jackson and Jack Nicholson. Yet behind the revolving door is a wall of silence from the hotel’s staff. As Miele’s and crew attempt to break the cone of silence, to hilarious results, Always at the Carlyle continues to perpetuate the mysteries and allure of its famous location. Various talking heads are interviewed about their time there, from Anjelica Huston to George Clooney and Lenny Kravitz. Huston cheekily questions whether one could obtain drugs from the hotel, while maids and waiters smile over memories of Jack Nicholson’s kindness. But the salaciousness that the interview subjects refuse to reveal is replaced with a sweetly tempered tale about the people who are institutions of the hotel itself.
The documentary spotlights not just the celebrities who have graced the hotel’s lobbies, but the employees who, many describe, make the Carlyle what it is. It is these people, the different faces who have made The Carlyle their home for decades that eliminates the veneer of elitism the hotel has. Miele uses his camera to highlight several different members of the hotel staff, all of whom have their own unique stories to share. There’s Dwight, a concierge at the hotel whose stutter, once seen as an impediment is now what people love about him; Tommy, one of The Carlyle’s retired bartenders, who has a story about Paul McCartney’s daughter he’ll never share; and Danny, one of the bellman who maintains he knows nothing about tunnels used to carry Marilyn Monroe to John F. Kennedy. These colorful figures all enhance the mystique of the hotel, as well as perpetuate the idea that they’re a family. From the various accents to skin tones of the staff, The Carlyle has the diversity its guests often lack.
Miele covers every facet of the hotel, from the monogramming of its pillows for each individual guest to its bar and the legendary Cafe Carlyle. The camera consumes the lush Art Deco opulence of the hotel – the varnished wood, decorative scrollwork, and the Ludwig Bemelman artwork in Bemelman’s Bar – without judgement, content to let the audience drink it all in. Content to just kick back and soak in the environment this does leave Always at the Carlyle searching for a story. The second half of the film slows down significantly, mostly to talk about the Cafe Carlyle and how many fantastic performers have graced its stage. The closest thing passing for a plot is the arrival of Prince William and Kate Middleton, but that’s never an overarching narrative, more something that happens during filming. So is the death of Broadway actress Elaine Stritch, whose death coincides with them filming in the Cafe Carlyle. Spookily enough, the lights go off during the interview at the time the actress passes with many citing her “ghost.”
But it’s hard not to be charmed by Always at the Carlyle. It isn’t just hearing how Sofia Coppola bought $50 in orange juice via room service; it’s hearing Melies’ himself behind the camera, urging the various employees to tell stories and generally just being excited to stand in the hotel itself. Watching Melies’ camera capture the comings and goings of Met Gala attendees, or hearing about a wild party thrown by Naomi Campbell makes the audience believe in the magical world that we can only dream of being a part of.
Always at the Carlyle is a dazzling, endearing story that will appeal to classic film buffs and history aficionados. It’s light and breezy in contrast to other documentaries and that’s just fine. It’ll certainly give you a glimpse of a hotel whose sticker shock turns away dozens.