July 29, 2013 3:32:38 PM
When he died at the age of seventy in 1985, Orson Welles was mostly a sad figure of fun, because of his girth, his strange legacy of failing in projects for decades after making one of the greatest of films, Citizen Kane, when he was 25, and for lending his voice-of-God intonations to commercials and narration of forgettable films. He may have been fat, and he may have taken money where his voice could earn it, but the reputation of a cinematic has-been is maddeningly unjustified. Welles succeeded as a maverick independent filmmaker with, among others, Othello, Lady from Shanghai, and Touch of Evil. Along the way he met, inspired, alienated, or confounded all the most important people in Hollywood. He was still writing and trying to gain funds for new projects when he died, but for the two years before his death, he had lunch nearly every week at Ma Maison in Hollywood with his friend, the director Henry Jaglom. Welles requested that their lunchtime conversations be recorded, only asking that Jaglom's recorder be kept out of sight. The tapes sat in a shoebox for decades; Jaglom had the goal of getting them transcribed, but (Welles would have understood this) making movies took precedence. When Peter Biskind, who has written about film in many venues, heard about the tapes, he pushed the transcriptions forward and read them to see if they might be a good book. Indeed they are. Biskind has edited My Lunches with Orson: Conversations between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles (Metropolitan Books), in which Welles tells stories, reminisces, gossips, rants, justifies himself and punctures his own myths. Anyone interested in understanding this brilliant director and actor will find that sitting down to these lunchtime conversations is fascinating.
If the world were fair, Citizen Kane should have allowed its maker a lifetime of Hollywood access. It didn't happen; projects were taken out of his hands, like The Magnificent Ambersons, and irrevocably changed, and he had to scramble to make his independent films. The saddest part of this book is that at seventy, Welles is still pushing himself, still coming up with ideas, and still failing to get support for them. Some justifiable bitterness comes through, and Welles is good at puncturing his own pomposity and failures. He brings up John O'Hara's review of Kane, "He wrote the greatest review that anybody ever had. He said, 'This is not only the best picture that has ever been made, it is the best picture that will ever be made.'" Jaglom says, "What do you do after that?" and gets the sad rejoinder, "Nothing. I should have retired." That was a great review, but he is uncomfortable with the many books about him that came out in his lifetime. "They make me wince. Either because they're too nice, or not nice enough. I'm terribly thin-skinned. I believe everything bad I read about myself. And even if I reject it, it remains in my mind as probably true. So I protect myself by reading as little about myself as I can, out of cowardice."
He couldn't have retired, because he needed money. Especially in these last years, he was flailing for income, hoping to get actors or producers interested in The Dreamers, an adaptation of Isak Dinesen stories which he had been shooting intermittently for several years, and a political thriller The Big Brass Ring. Nothing was forthcoming. Part of it was, of course, his own fault. When an HBO executive, invited by Jaglom, joins the pair to talk about Welles's participation in a project, Welles says almost instantly that he "wouldn't be remotely interested," and when she says she would like to hear his own ideas, he refuses to talk because of her "dead look." She says, "I think you're wrong," and Welles explodes, "You're wrong. You're really wrong. Boy, are you wrong." He had done well for a while as a wine pitchman for Paul Masson wines, using that famous voice to solemnize the meaningless promise, "We will sell no wine before its time." He can't get commercials anymore, he complains, and this leads him into a tirade about his former associate in the Mercury Theatre and his great nemesis John Houseman, who had had success in various television pitches. "I'm in terrible financial trouble," Welles whines. "There is no 'meantime.' It's the grocery bill. I haven't got the money. It's that urgent." He thinks of lost opportunities. "If Wesson Oil would let me say that Wesson Oil is good, instead of Houseman, I'd be delighted, but nobody will take me for a commercial. It's just a closed door, and I don't understand why... A real mystery: why they prefer Houseman, with his petulant, arrogant, unpleasant manner." (Welles, brilliant as he is, cannot seem to understand that advertisers would have attributed to him the faults he saw in Houseman.)
Of course Jaglom and Welles talk about movies, and Welles's opinions are, well, idiosyncratic. He thinks John Huston stole from him liberally. "His first picture," he says, "The Maltese Falcon, was totally borrowed from Kane." (Jaglom kindly qualifies that the shots in Falcon do hark to Kane's "lighting, the angles; the setups; the ceilings...") . He once said he watched John Ford's Stagecoach repeatedly while training for making Kane, but labels The Searchers "terrible." He cannot comprehend Hitchcock's reputation; while he finds an early film like The 39 Steps "a masterpiece," he says Shadow of a Doubt was "the one good picture Hitchcock made in America." Rear Window? "Everything is stupid about it." Vertigo? "That's worse." Von Sternberg? "Never made a good picture." But The Blue Angel? "It's a big piece of schlock. Painted on velvet. Like you buy in Honolulu." He admired Casablanca very much, saying of the director, "Curtiz used to be an assistant to Max Reinhardt, so he knew what he was doing."
Welles has no reason to like producers and has plenty to say about the faults of a Hollywood that revolved around them. Irving Thalberg he considers "the biggest single villain in the history of Hollywood," enabled by Louis B. Mayer to make decisions only the director should make. Producers before Thalberg's time might go on the set to see that the movie was on budget, but Thalberg and the others had to do something, so they got "creative" and made directors make their creations. "The director became the fellow whose only job was to say, 'Action' and 'Cut.' Suddenly, you were 'just a director' on a 'Thalberg production.'" Thalberg milked his personal charm, his good looks, and even his impending death from rheumatic fever to get his way. "Enormously charming and persuasive. Thalberg was Satan! You know, the classic Satan... He was obviously a weaver of spells who was able to convince everyone that he was the artist. Thalberg was way up here, and the director was way down there."
It isn't all irascibility and bile. Welles was a fine raconteur, and what a life full of occurrences he had to draw on. He relates that since he has a bad time remembering names, he enjoys it when people come up to him and can't remember who he is. "I was in the airport in Las Vegas last year, and a man on crutches, an older man, looked at me with that finally-found-his-favorite-movie-star expression, and started limping toward me. Of course, I met him halfway, and he said, 'Milton Berle! I'd know you anywhere.' So I signed Milton Berle for him. True story. I swear. I finally figured out that he meant Burl Ives, who is a big fat bearded fellow. And out came 'Milton Berle.'"
Welles knew he would be long gone when any of these recordings came to light, and he wasn't inclined to censor himself anyway. These chats are funny, insightful, and entertaining. They are good as gossip; Welles has some good stuff to dish about Hedda Hopper, Lena Horne, Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton, and scores more. They are even better as a portrait of an artist looking back on his own career and of those around him, stories of his moviemaking and of his personal life. It isn't surprising that Citizen Kane looms over the life, and enters the conversation here frequently both as Welles's cinematic triumph and a reminder of all the frustrations that would follow. In his introduction, Biskind writes, "After Kane, movies were never the same. When asked to describe Welles's influence, Jean-Luc Godard remarked, simply, 'Everyone will always owe him everything.'"