My Lunches with Orson: Conversations Between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles, Edited by Peter Biskind. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2013. Hardcover, $28.00. 306pp. ISBNL 978-0-8050-9725252800
The reader in search of insights and reflections from filmmakers can choose from a number of worthy options. Think of the University Press of Mississippi’s Conversations with Filmmakers series, an often rewarding line, if necessarily constrained, given the commercial origins of many of the pieces included. Ditto Vintage’s editions of conversations with directors from the AFI. My Lunches with Orson is something altogether different. On some level it’s a project commissioned by Welles. He asked his friend, the director Henry Jaglom, to bring a tape recorder to their lunches and conceal it in a bag below the table, so Welles wouldn’t be overly conscious of it. Jaglom complied from 1983 until 1985, shortly before Welles’s death. The results as brought to us by editor Peter Biskind are lively and revealing if also, thanks to Welles, maddening and fantastical at times (see his version of Carole Lombard’s death).
Orson Welles circa 1983 was a towering figure only in memory. The previous several years, in terms of output, yielded voice-over work and the stray part in films like Butterfly and Hot Money, roles worth mentioning only as a measure of how far his fortunes had declined. He worked on scripts for new productions and hoped to attract funding, but it was difficult even with the work of his friend, the filmmaker Henry Jaglom, who essentially took on the role of Welles’s manager in those years. The setbacks and diminished prospects hadn’t diminished Welles’s confidence or his commitment to pursuing ambitious, often commercially tricky projects. This volume is invaluable as a record of his moods and his particular standing in those latter days, but it goes well beyond that to encompass his thoughts on a great range of figures from Hollywood and the larger world alike. Those opinions often seem founded on little more than personal taste or prejudice (it’s unlikely Welles would object to the word given his early pronouncement that everyone should be bigoted), but they’re no less entertaining for it. These are meandering, gossipy talks between friends, peppered with Jaglom’s welcome questions about Welles’s opinion of specific films and industry figures. Biskind brings order to the proceedings, condensing related material from separate occasions and even enhancing Welles’s answers in places with material from Jaglom’s diaries and interviews. The result is so seamless that, had Biskind not disclosed his methods, the reader would suspect nothing.
Much of what Welles offers here makes a kind of obvious sense. He professes great admiration for Erich von Stroheim and defends him against the longstanding charges of having bloated budgets for his films far out of control: “They had to make him into a monster. I had a very interesting experience when I was making Touch of Evil. I had a scene in a police archive, and they let me shoot in the real archive at Universal. And while they were setting the lights, I looked up von Stroheim, the budgets of his movies. They weren’t that high. The idea that he was so extravagant was nonsense.”
Jaglom pushes on, asking if Welles knew von Stroheim — he did — and if he liked him — “Loved him. He was a terribly nice fellow.” Of von Stroheim’s fate as a director, Welles notes that, “He became purely an actor. He became a star in France in the thirties, but in bad pictures. A terrible loss. ‘Cause there was a gigantic gift, really. No question.”
Later, while lamenting the damage done by latter-day producers, Welles recounts David O. Selznick’s antipathy toward him. He paints Selznick as a comic figure, a man so petty and competitive that if his team lost at charades, the great party game at Selznick’s gatherings, he “would follow us in our cars down the driveway, screaming insults at us for having been such idiots, with his voice echoing through the canyons as we drove away. He would become so violent that it was worth it. It was funny just to watch him. And then he had us back the next week. ‘Now we’re gonna win,’ you see?”
Though his opinions here are definite, they aren’t always convincing. He concedes that It’s a Wonderful Life is “hokey. It’s sheer Norman Rockwell from the beginning to the end. But you cannot resist it! There’s no way of hating that movie!” Shortly thereafter he sums up The Blue Angel as “a big piece of schlock. Painted on velvet. Like you buy in Honolulu.” Humphrey Bogart, who Jaglom admires, is “a second-rate actor. Really a second-rate actor”, whereas Gary Cooper, Welles admits, “turns me right into a girl!” To his credit, he goes on to say that “Neither of them were much good. But we’re in love with ’em.”
A particular treat is a glimpse of Welles at work, albeit offhandedly. Jaglom presents him with a series of ideas he has for scenes in what will become Always, and Welles picks them apart on the spot, reworks them in more pleasing fashion, not just to himself but to Jaglom. He doesn’t do so in a coddling manner. When Jaglom presses a point too far, Welles asks “Now why did you do that? Because that’s essentially gross.” Jaglom takes no offense. “This is exactly what I’m asking you for,” he says, “so this is marvelous. Thank you, Orson. I hope you don’t mind doing this.” He loves it, Welles says, and though the exchange runs another three pages, there’s such magic here that the reader is loath to see it end.
The succeeding pages are perhaps the most apt summation of the challenge Welles presents. What follows is not Welles’s finest moment, even in a book in which Jaglom chastises him for rudeness at times, and specifically for acting like an asshole on one occasion, when he sends Richard Burton away peremptorily when he approaches them at lunch. Upon meeting, Jaglom notes that Welles looks troubled, and asks, “What? No hug?”:
OW: If we could figure out a way to hug without kissing, that would be fine.
HJ: Why no kissing?
OW: You know, we could have AIDS.
HJ: Well, neither of us, as far as I know, has AIDS. Is there something I should know about you, Orson?
OW: They don’t know how it’s transmitted, and saliva is one of the responsible parties.
HJ: We don’t drool on each other when we kiss.
OW: I’m not kissing anybody. I’m not even sure about shaking hands. But I can hug you in such a way that we face in opposite directions.
HJ: Orson, what is this, a comedy routine?
OW: I’m deadly serious. I haven’t gone through my life to be felled by some gay plague. We might be carriers. You never know.
This was 1985. Welles had watched Jaglom push to fund his version of Lear, and another project he called The Dreamers, only to see all avenues for these ventures gradually narrow. He makes a disastrous, apparently off-the-cuff pitch to an HBO executive, becoming difficult and nearly confrontational in the process. He confesses to Jaglom, “I’m in terrible financial trouble,” while complaining that his arch-nemesis John Houseman “has had twenty commercials on camera. I’ve had one . . . And I keep trying to make a decent movie that will also make me money.” Despite his hardships, Welles never emerges as tragic here, exactly. Sidelined by his reputation, yes, and insistent that he be allowed to do things on his own terms, but seldom does he pity himself, at least not aloud. He is complex and mercurial, still every bit an overwhelming talent, though it’s hard not to see in him more than a bit of the fate he lamented for Erich von Stroheim.
Jaglom’s closing thoughts on Welles are wry and memorable. He notes the urge to call Welles with the tributes pouring in upon the news of his death, and the satisfaction he would have taken in railing against their hypocrisy. They had known one another long enough by the end that the mentor-mentee bond that no doubt presided over their early dealings had given way to more mutual respect. Jaglom had directed Welles in two films: his debut, A Safe Place, a project for which Welles provided invaluable advice; and Someone to Love, Welles’s final screen appearance. Jaglom discusses cutting Someone to Love and leaving in Welles’s laugh at the end, despite his (Welles’s) distaste for shots of fat men laughing. It was “a roaring, embracing, wonderful laugh,” Jaglom recalls, “I knew he wouldn’t be able to get it in the film because he would have hated it. When he died, I felt the least I could do was give them his one last laugh.” That was just over twenty-five years ago. It’s difficult to gauge what impact My Lunches with Orson will have on Welles’ reputation, or on Jaglom’s for that matter. As a tribute to or celebration of Welles, or even a simple document of the giant’s final years, it’s a gratifying work, one sure to charm and confound readers for years to come.