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

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.

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In these pages, The Great Man and his acolyte chat about subjects great and small: fate vs. free will, the uniqueness of Shakespeare, the nature of artistic greatness, the differences among various countries’ sensibilities and artistic tastes, filmmaking techniques (“I never shot a master in my life”), Chaplin vs. Keaton, English vs. American actors (“English actors are more modest than Americans, because they’ve never had Lee Strasberg to teach ’em that they know better than the director”), Hitchcock’s late American films (“they’re all lit like television shows”), Joan Didion’s Salvador (“It should be called Seven Days in Central America”), and much more.

Welles gossips about and/or passes judgment on dozens of movies, directors, actors: Spencer Tracy was “hateful”; Olivier, “stupid”; Irene Dunne “Dumb. Dumb. Dumb”; Joan Fontaine, his costar in Jane Eyre, “just a plain old bad actor” with “four readings, and two expressions.” John Wayne “had some of the best manners,” while Norma Shearer was “one of the most minimally talented ladies ever to appear on the silver screen, and… looked like nothing.” On page 61, Humphrey Bogart is “both a coward and a very bad fighter”; on 203 he’s “a brave man.” Speaking of whom, Welles has this to say about Casablanca:

OW: The war flattened everybody’s taste in a very curious way. The best thing they could do in the movies was some delirious piece of fabrication like Casablanca. That was the great work of art, during the whole period of the war. Nothing else.

HJ: Why has that picture taken on such a—?

OW: It has nothing to do with anything except Hollywood’s dream of the war. But that’s its charm. To me, it’s like The Merry Widow, which is a great work of its kind. There never was a Vienna like the one in The Merry Widow, and there never was a Casablanca like the one in Casablanca. But who gives a damn, you know?

Just as he did on those long-ago talk shows, Welles serves up stories about himself some of which can seem, well, just a bit too good to be true. He claims to have attended parties in his youth with William Butler Yeats and Lady Gregory. He claims to have put up money for two legendary L.A. restaurants – the return on which would have made him rich – but to have been stiffed in both cases. He claims to have written the script for Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux. He claims he was the first to be offered the job of directing The Glass Menagerie on Broadway. He claims to have seen a New York cop – any not just any cop, but the one on whom the Lieutenant Branigan character in Guys and Dolls was based – “put Charlie [Lucky] Luciano, head first, into a garbage can outside of Reuben’s [a legendary Manhattan eatery], at five thirty in the morning.”

The list goes on. Recalling the 1942 wartime plane crash in Nevada in which actress Carole Lombard died, Welles claims that people in the know have told him it was shot down by Nazis. He claims that MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer “offered me his studio” because he “was madly in love with me….Twice he brought me over— spent all day wooing me….Whenever he sent for me, he burst into tears, and once he fainted….The deal was, I’d have the studio but I’d have to stop acting, directing, and writing— making pictures.” Great story – but does it even make sense?

At times it can seem that Welles was best friends with everyone. “I knew [Arthur] Rubinstein for forty years, very well.” He knew the gangster Meyer Lansky “very well.” Lombard was “a very close friend of mine.” He was, he says, alone with FDR several times during his presidency: “I kept him up too late. He liked to stay up and talk….He was free with me….He used to say, ‘You and I are the two best actors in America.’” He dated Marilyn Monroe, he says, and took her “to parties before she was a star.” Each of Welles’s stories, taken individually, may be plausible enough – and many of them may be absolutely true – but all of them, every last one? 

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?’” 


Welles and his Bel Air Boswell also discuss several film projects that Welles, with Jaglom’s assistance, is trying to get off the ground. Welles seems desperate to get behind a camera again, to have a film out, to return to the public eye. Yet every time a project seems close to being clinched, he manages to destroy it tout de suite. After he gets turned down for a project by several top actors whose casting would guarantee ample financing, Robert DeNiro says yes, and Welles, instead of being thrilled, rejects him out of hand. At Jaglom’s invitation, an HBO exec sits in on one lunch, and is seemingly eager to work out an arrangement for a series of short films by Welles; yet Welles, instead of embracing this golden opportunity, turns rude, angrily accuses her of responding to his ideas with “a dead look” in her eyes, and, in a rage, drives her away from the table.

What’s going on here? Is he scared, deep down, to make another film? Does he fear he lacks the necessary energy? Or feel that he’s lost his touch? Whatever the case, by the end of the book his weariness and sense of discouragement are palpable; instead of discussing how to get his projects financed, he wistfully speaks of his career as “only a memory.”

Welles died on October 10, 1985, five days after his last lunch with Jaglom, and was remembered in obituaries, predictably enough, as a boy genius who’d failed to fulfill his potential. It could indeed be argued that he was one of those artists, like Oscar Wilde, who put time and effort into conversations with friends over long, drawn-out meals that would have been more usefully expended on his work. Certainly Welles did enjoy both his meals and his conversations. But all the false starts and uncompleted projects notwithstanding, he also made more first-rate movies than almost any other film director you can name, in Hollywood or anywhere else. Much of the testimony is right at your fingertips: as I type these words, The Stranger, Macbeth, Othello, The Trial, Chimes at Midnight, and F for Fake are all available on You Tube in their entirety, along with parts of The Magnificent Ambersons and Touch of Evil. Biskind’s book is a fine companion to this splendid oeuvre, a welcome glimpse – by turns thought-provoking, funny, and poignant – of the lion in winter.

My Lunches with Orson: Conversations between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles, edited and with an introduction by Peter Biskind. New York: Metropolitan Books, $28.

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