Orson Welles will always be known as a preternaturally gifted actor, writer, and director of radio, theater, and cinema. But more than anything, Orson Welles was a world-class talker, one of the best of his age. For all of his successes on the stage, screen, and airwaves, there was truly nothing Orson Welles did better than talk. Even in his later years, with his career and health in freefall, when one of the greatest artists in the history of cinema was reduced to shilling frozen peas and cheap wine, Welles never stopped doing what he did best (and, deep down, what he probably loved best): talking.
Anyone in need of convincing can now refer to the compulsively readable My Lunches with Orson, a collection of transcripts of conversations between Welles and his friend, director Henry Jaglom. The conversations are all taken from an archive of tapes made by Jaglom (with Welles’ permission) made during their regular lunches in the early ‘80s at Hollywood restaurant Ma Maison, Welles’ hangout and de facto office. Edited by film historian Peter Biskind (Easy Rider, Raging Bull), it wonderfully captures Welles’ grandiose gift for talk and makes a compelling case for him as perhaps one of the great lunch companions of all time. Breezy and fun (it’s easily devourable in one or two sittings), it offers a compelling look at a too-little-examined period of Welles’ life, a period of frustration and false starts, but also of surprising vitality and creativity.
On the surface, Welles and Jaglom seem an unlikely pair: Welles, the lion in winter, whose girth at that point was outmatched only by his legendary reputation; and Jaglom, the green young filmmaker making small, deeply personal relationship films. But it takes only a few pages to see why the two got along so well together. Jaglom is the deferential and admiring young upstart, the eager audience that a storyteller like Welles so desperately needs, while at the same time gently challenging and prodding him outside his comfort zone, and lending him courage, confidence, and encouragement as-needed.
Their conversations are sprawling, often hilarious, and surprisingly intimate. Welles talks expansively and knowledgably about everything under the sun: movies, theater, art, architecture, literature, politics, and history. The two men bicker about films and filmmakers (they can’t agree on Chaplin, but bond over their mutual distaste for Vertigo), but also share deeply personal insecurities, and intimacies. Jaglom mourns a collapsing marriage, while Welles candidly shares regrets and bittersweet lessons from a lifetime of love and loss.
Of course, there’s plenty of lurid Hollywood gossip to be had, too. Welles candidly dishes on innumerable affairs, rivalries, and stories that are sometimes too incredible to believe. He holds forth with unfiltered opinions on everyone from Laurence Olivier (“very — I mean seriously — stupid”), Katherine Hepburn (“she laid around the town like nobody’s business”), to Charlie Chaplin (“deeply dumb in many ways”). There are stories about dating Marilyn Monroe, wild conspiracy theories, and of course, plenty of bragging and self-mythologizing. There’s even a dalliance with politics, where he discusses being talked out of a Senate run in the early ’50s by Alan Cranston, only to see Cranston run and win in his place. (Just imagine Welles, the lefty firebrand, in the Senate during the years of Watergate, Vietnam, civil rights… the mind reels at the possibilities.)
In a book full of what-ifs and near-misses, what dominates are Welles’ unending and ultimately unsuccessful attempts to get various films into production. Although the commonly held Hollywood legend is that Welles was washed up and uninterested in working during this period of his life, the portrait drawn here shows precisely the opposite. In conversation with Jaglom, Welles is feverishly champing at the bit to get back behind the camera making movies. He and Jaglom (his gatekeeper and de facto agent at this point) are continuously scheming to scare up funding and seal various half-completed deals in order to fund any of the half-dozen projects Welles had going. (It’s a diverse slate that included an adaptation of Isak Dinesen’s The Dreamers, a production of King Lear, and an original script by Welles called The Big Brass Ring, a political drama that Jaglom believed was one of the best things Welles ever wrote.)
Of course, from our lofty perch here in the present we know that none of these projects were ever realized. Still, it remains tantalizing and enlightening to read Welles and Jaglom feverishly working to try to get them into production. And it’s amazing how close many of them actually came to being made, with Welles and Jaglom continually juggling offers from producers and governments around the world, with many backers simply vying for the honor of working with such a legend. But even the most generous offers are never quite enough, and Welles and Jaglom’s attempts to cobble together patchworks of international financing repeatedly fall through. Indeed, rather than show an artist unable or unwilling to work, what the book comes closer to revealing is the incredible, almost insurmountable difficulty of getting any film funded in the age of modern capitalism.
Of course, the popular image of Welles as his own worst enemy isn’t entirely untrue as well, and many of the obstacles that he encounters here are self-created. Even when a film deal seems in the bag, Welles invariably contrives some excuse or other to avoid it or sink it, to Jaglom’s repeated dismay. He gripes about the cost of crews, the locations of studios, his suspicion of governments and producers, and his ever-present need for final cut. His excuses pile up to the point where some readers may fantasize about reaching directly into the pages, grabbing Welles by the collar, giving him a good shaking, and shouting “Do it! Cut the baloney and just say yes!” The meticulousness of a gifted genius, or the cowardly pretexts of a gormless has-been? The reader can decide for herself.
It’s that tension which makes the book surprisingly moving, giving it an unavoidable air of melancholy and tragedy. Was Welles a prisoner of the Hollywood system, of his own cowardice, or maybe even his own reputation? Was he perhaps frightened, even up to the end, about living up to the blinding promise of his early career? (At one point, after the umpteenth rejection of one of his scripts, he gripes, “They always want earth-shattering from me. They always want Touch of Evil.”) In the end, none of these possible explanations makes his personal struggle any less touching.
My Lunches with Orson is a portrait of a man who, even right up to the end, was trying desperately to find a way, any way, to do what he knew he was put on Earth to do: make films. Whether he was struggling with the Hollywood system, his own demons, or both, he still went down swinging.
At the close of the book we read how, less than a week after his last lunch with Henry Jaglom, Welles died with a typewriter in his lap, working ’till the last. It’s an ending so fitting, so in-character, that it may have come right out of one of his films.