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.