Get PJ Media on your Apple

PJM Lifestyle

The Lion in Winter: Gossipy Lunches with Orson Welles, Hollywood’s Original Badboy Filmmaker

An engaging new book provides glimpses of the Citizen Kane director at the end.

by
Bruce Bawer

Bio

July 12, 2013 - 5:00 pm
Page 1 of 5  Next ->   View as Single Page
YouTube Preview Image

Given that the years since Orson Welles’s death in 1985 have not seen any major revival of interest in his work, I can’t help wondering how many young adults today could place his name or recognize his picture. For those of us who had already attained adulthood when he died, he had been an inescapable presence in our lives – a frequent guest on pretty much all the major talk shows, not to mention a perennial TV-commercial pitchman for Paul Masson wine. An incomparably massive bearded figure with a deep theatrical voice, a hearty laugh, and an encyclopedic knowledge of history and high culture, he possessed a seemingly bottomless trove of personal anecdotes which gave the impression that he’d been everywhere worth visiting and known every twentieth-century person worth knowing.

On those talk shows, the conversations often turned to his first and most famous movie, the legendary Citizen Kane (1941), which he’d produced, directed, starred in, and co-written while still in his mid-twenties, and which in the five polls of film critics taken by the cinema journal Sight & Sound between 1962 and 2002 was consistently voted the greatest motion picture ever made. (In 2012, it dropped to #2.) Kane, which followed several years of success on Broadway, was the apex of his career: Welles – who didn’t suffer fools gladly, didn’t like being told what to do or when to do it, and in any case didn’t want to make the kind of movies the studios wanted him to make – tumbled rather speedily out of Hollywood’s good graces, and ended up spending much of the rest of his life trying to secure private financing for his film projects. (If he took so many dubious acting and narrating jobs over the years and did so many cheesy commercials, it was because the paychecks went straight into his own filmmaking budget.)

And make no mistake, the films he directed were masterly. Yet most of them were so poorly distributed that hardly anybody even heard about them, let alone saw them. Consequently, for most Americans living in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, Welles was nothing more or less than a highly diverting TV raconteur who once, long ago, had made a great movie.

And that’s the Welles we meet in My Lunches with Orson. Based on tape recordings made by Henry Jaglom, a much younger director who, in the words of the book’s editor, Peter Biskind, had become “Welles’s sounding board, confessor, producer, agent, and biggest fan,” it purports to record conversations Welles and Jaglom had over their grilled chicken and soft-shelled crab at Ma Maison, a Hollywood restaurant, between 1983 and 1985. I say “purports” because, as explained in a prefatory note, Biskind has shuffled the materials around and has even beefed up some of the anecdotes by adding details that Welles included when he told the same stories to other audiences at other times and places. Whether one considers this editorial decision defensible or not, the result is a veritable feast of Wellesiana, rich in a variety of flavors – sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent.

627 (1)

Comments are closed.

All Comments   (11)
All Comments   (11)
Sort: Newest Oldest Top Rated
I wanted to reply to ArtGhost below, but don't know whether to click "Reply" or "Link to Comment"? (which responds to the article and which to a person's comment?).

I agree ArtGhost, when I saw the "dumb,dumb,dumb" comment about Irene Dunne, I felt the same thing. There is no way that Dunne could have been "dumb." Her performances are far too sharp, even for today, and thus reveal exactly the opposite. Also, her vocal performances in Show Boat, High Wide and Handsome, Sweet Adeline and Roberta, and her far too few commercially released discs, reveal a thoughtful musical mind at work as she interprets Jerome Kern's most wistful melodies.

But consider the fact that Welles was a big lib, and Dunne was an outspoken Catholic. Just like today, Welle's mind probably went into childish lib overdrive about "people who believe in a bearded man in the sky." He would be calling her a "tea-bagger" today.

As for Welles, how seriously can I take a man who divorced Rita Hayworth on the grounds that, "She bores me." Really? Hayworth may not have been an intellectual, but her exquisite dancing reveals a mind that knew how to express itself in intelligent, witty and yes, intellectual ways without words.

My guess is that Welles was a true mysogynist who needed the intellectual approval of men to maintain his self esteem. And when he didn't receive it, as in offers worthy of his great talent, he became, like Miss Lolly said below, a "bitter old know-it-all."

By the way, we all remember his Paul Masson wine commercials of the '70s, but old-timers might remember his earlier and long-time radio sponsorship via the Cresta Blanca winery. Clearly, when he was desperate for money, he returned to the same well, one that both provided cash and that maintained his image as a snob. To his credit, Cresta Blanca and Paul Masson were both inexpensive table wines, so at least he knew his audience.
39 weeks ago
39 weeks ago Link To Comment
my neighbor's ex-wife makes $64 every hour on the internet. She has been out of a job for five months but last month her pay check was $20855 just working on the internet for a few hours. Read more on this web site... www.Can99.com
39 weeks ago
39 weeks ago Link To Comment
The problem with Wells is he peaked early and never achieved in later life the successes of his youth. He ended up sounding like a bitter old know-it-all.
39 weeks ago
39 weeks ago Link To Comment
Welles is quoted saying, "There never was a Vienna like the one in The Merry Widow..." Alas, The Merry Window has nothing to do with Vienna -- it was set, famously, in the Paris of Maxims, and briefly in one of those fictional, cash-strapped, middle European states. If Welles is confused in this remembrance, what else is jangled in his memory?
40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
I am in hearty agreement with "artghost" posting below. Welle's was bursting with talent and made a handful of great films. He was also just about he most self-centered and childish SOB ever produced by the American entertainment industry (which really takes in a lot of ground.) Welles spent years whining to his fellow snobs about how he was mistreated, undermined and misunderstood by the film industry. Maybe he was but his childish narcissism was his worst enemy. How is it that guys like Ford, Hawks, Wyler, Wilder, Mankiewicz, Curtiz, Hathaway, Wellman, King and Hitchcock (to name a few) made great fillms year in and year out within the constraints of the studio system but Orson couldn't? I think it was because the aforementioned directors were tough-minded grownups who understood the old Garson Kanin saying - "The problem with movies as a business is that they're really an art form. The problem with movies as an art form is that they're really a business." Welles would never absorb this. When you stand your ground for what you believe (as Welles always claimed to) this can be admirable. However it is just as likely to be mulish pigheadedness.

Orson Welles was a facinating, cultured and witty guy and if I had ever gotten the chance to meet him I am sure he would have charmed the socks off of me. I'll probably read this book just to see what snarky things he had to say about his fellow actors and directors - I'm only human.
40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
I agree that the gossipy element of the book might be intriguing, but when I read that he said Irene Dunne was, "dumb, dumb, dumb' I was so insulted on behalf of one of my all-time favorites that it put me off. Even if he were just making clever word-play with her surname, I still find it blasphemous.

You're so right about all the hard-working directors making wonderful films within the studio system and without much fanfare or personal fame or fan recognition. And the idea of LB Mayer offering Welles M-G-M is woo-woo crazy!
40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
As much as I love Welles' films (especially Kane, Ambersons and The Lady From Shanghai) I never could bear listening to him pontificate on talk shows despite his wide-ranging knowledge. He was right when he said American actors are less modest than their British counterparts, but I'm not sure Strasburg has anything to do with it given Welles' own deep strain of good old American narcissism. Too, I always found his obvious frustration at not living up to his own lofty idea of what his career and life should have been very sad to watch. To some people celebrity becomes a drug that obscures what is real and worthy - Welles' may have fulfilled his promise as an artist if he had stayed out of the limelight.

I enjoyed reading about this book, though my next purchase is going to be The Victim's Revolution.
40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
rose bud
40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
If all he had ever done was 'A Touch of Evil' he would have earned a place with the Greats.

But as for being the 'Original Bad Boy of Hollywood', there had been roughly 50 years of Bad Boys before Wells ever got on the train from NY to LA. From Valentino to Mix. Arbuckle to Chaplin......... and oh so many more. More high jinks and shinannigin's in the Silent Era than all of the history of Talky Hollywood.
40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
I read a couple of reviews of the book, and last night Bette Davis (a particular bête noire of Welles) came into my dream.

Richard Burton trashed his own immense talent in the roles he accepted and Spencer Tracy was a mean-spirited guy, and so on.

Since Hollywood types today seem to think, because of the overly exaggerated attention they receive, that their pronouncements on politics and everything under the sun somehow carry more weight, I like to see a little pull down of myth.
40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
The problem is not the big mouth Hollywood types, the problem is with their brainless celebrity worshippers.

Anyways, I've refused to enrich the big mouths for as long as I can remember.
40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
View All