Food For Thought
Orson Welles dishes up sour grapes
Peter Biskind ’62, My Lunches with Orson: Conversations between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles, Metropolitan Books, New York, 2013, 320 pp.
In the midst of one of the many midday meals chronicled in My Lunches With Orson, edited by Peter Biskind ’62, Orson Welles starts venting to his perennial companion, the director Henry Jaglom, about the unpleasant experience of reading a biography of the poet Robert Graves. It’s not that the book was bad, Welles explains, but “I learned more about him than I wanted to know.”
That’s certainly a danger with Lunches, which finds Welles near the end of his career and, unknowingly, his life. (He died in 1985; the book’s transcripts begin in 1983.) It’s dispiriting to hear the director of Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil laying plans for new works and knowing they would all come to naught, to hear him call King Lear “the part I was born to play,” knowing he would never get to play it. To hear Welles over the course of his periodic meetings at Los Angeles’ Ma Maison, captured, purportedly with his consent, by a tape recorder hidden in Jaglom’s bag, is to eavesdrop on a great man all but defeated, whittling down his more successful colleagues with no small amount of spite. Depending on your tolerance for Hollywood dish, this is Welles either uncensored or unhinged, asserting that Josef von Sternberg “never made a good picture” and disparaging his one-time champion Peter Bogdanovich as a disloyal careerist. Even at his most petty, Welles’ wit is lethal: He says that Marlon Brando, even at his pre-Apocalypse Now weight, had a neck like “a huge sausage, a shoe made of flesh.” The collective bile can be wearisome. It’s one thing for Welles to snub Richard Burton, who trots over to ask if Elizabeth Taylor might pay his table a visit, quite another for Welles to dress down the restaurant’s wait staff for the sin of asking how he’s enjoying his meal. (Jaglom is even worse, equaling Welles’ ill humor with much less justification.)
But Welles can also be spectacularly eloquent, in criticism and in praise. Of Carole Lombard, whom he esteems, he says, “My God, she was earthy. She looked like a great beauty, but she behaved like a waitress in a hash house. That was her style of acting, too, and it had a great allure.” (For proof of her earthiness, track down the outtakes from My Man Godfrey, where she swears like a sailor with Tourette’s.) Although some of Welles’ enmity toward Charlie Chaplin is affixed to the idea that Chaplin stole the script for Monsieur Verdoux from him—Welles received screen credit for the idea about a Bluebeard-like killer, but Chaplin claimed to have written the screenplay himself—his preference for Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd is expressed without malice. Chaplin he admits, “was absolutely a genius,” but Lloyd was “the greatest gagman in the history of movies,” and Keaton was “more versatile, more, finally, original.” Whether or not one agrees with Welles’ assessment that John Ford’s The Searchers was “terrible,” it’s galvanizing to hear him disrupt the accepted canon. (Interestingly, one of the Ford pictures he looks kindly on is How Green Was My Valley, which these days is best remembered as the movie that beat Citizen Kane for the Best Picture Academy Award.)
In his introduction, Biskind says that the profligate Welles “needed someone to yell, ‘Focus!’ and this was the mantle Jaglom assumed.” At least on these tapes, it’s a role he plays fitfully, sometimes pushing Welles toward potential projects and apparently acting as his agent, at others furthering his acidic musings on the likes of Johnny Carson, whom both agree without much explanation is a plague upon the earth. “There can be nothing more sterile than an extended conversation between two people who basically agree,” Welles tells Jaglom at one point. “If we basically disagreed we’d be getting somewhere.” But even when the two were in sync, there was plenty of disagreement within Welles himself.
—Sam Adams ’95 is the editor of Indiewire’s Criticwire blog and a member
of the National Society of Film Critics.
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