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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

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July 12, 2013 - 5:00 pm
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Readers may even wonder about the reliability of Jaglom’s transcript (or Biskind’s rendering thereof). At one point, for example, Richard Burton appears at Welles’s table and asks if Elizabeth Taylor, whom he’s lunching with across the room, can come over and say hello. Welles shoots back: “No. As you can see, I’m in the middle of my lunch. I’ll stop by on my way out.” His brisk brush-off of Hollywood royalty is hilarious. But one immediately wonders: were Burton and Taylor, who divorced in 1976, really having lunch together at Ma Maison on that day in 1983?

Of all the people whom Welles rants about, the one for whom he reserves the most venom is his old theater and film partner John Houseman, who at the time of the Ma Maison lunches with Jaglom was riding high, having won a supporting-actor Oscar in 1973 and followed it with a string of high-profile acting jobs and lucrative commercials. Every bit of it made Welles seethe with envy. How strange to see the director of Citizen Kane saying: “If I got just one commercial, it would change my life!…I don’t even get the radio ones anymore!….You know, I could comprehend it, in this youth-oriented world, if my ex-partner wasn’t getting so rich on it.”

Welles and Jaglom also wander into politics. Jaglom (none of whose movies I’ve ever seen, as far as I can remember) comes off as a standard showbiz lefty, who has no apparent trouble with Hollywood Stalinism but despises director Elia Kazan for “naming names” in 1952 to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Welles can’t forgive Kazan either (even though he forgives German and French entertainers who performed for Nazis during the war), but at least he makes a point of mentioning the newspaper columns he wrote in the 1940s, in which he attacked Stalinist Russia “at a time when everybody thought God was smiling on Stalin.” He says he begged HUAC unsuccessfully to let him come to D.C. to explain to them “the difference between a Communist and a liberal.” And he says that in his experience “right-wingers” are “usually nicer people than left-wingers.” When Jaglom, coming off as a parody of P.C., says he’s “tormented” daily by his privileged life while children starve in Africa (“I should feel guiltier than I do”), Welles punctures his posturing: “Oh, the irony of these kinds of conversations is that they end with: ‘Do you want some berries?’” 

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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.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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1 year ago
1 year 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.
1 year ago
1 year 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?
1 year ago
1 year 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.
1 year ago
1 year 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!
1 year ago
1 year 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.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
rose bud
1 year ago
1 year 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.
1 year ago
1 year 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.
1 year ago
1 year 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.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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