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My Lunches with Orson: Conversations Between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles

Edited and with an introduction by Peter Biskind
Metropolitan, 2013

My-Lunches-With-OrsonThe death of Orson Welles in 1985 concluded perhaps the most convoluted trajectory in the history of American arts and entertainment. A prodigy, Welles had acquired massive celebrity in his teens, first as an acting sensation at Dublin’s Gate Theatre, then on Broadway, then as director and performer with his own Mercury Theater, then as a ubiquitous radio personality. After he became a literal terror of the airwaves in 1938 when he presented War of the Worlds in the form of a newscast, causing widespread hysteria amongst those who thought Martians really were invading New Jersey, RKO Studios signed him to an unprecedented contract for an untried director, a two-picture deal granting complete creative control. His ascendancy culminated in 1941 at age twenty-six with Citizen Kane, which would ultimately reign for fifty years in BFI’s Sight & Sound magazine poll as The Greatest Film of All Time.

In his introduction to My Lunches with Orson, Peter Biskind’s appraisal of Welles’s gifts and impact is characteristic of the thrill that Kane and its maker still inspire:

Welles had a genius for the dramatic; he was a master of shock and awe long before they turned to other, considerably less noble ends, but at the same time he was a skilled miniaturist who worked just as easily on a small canvas with lightness and subtlety. Above all, it was his wizardry with time, space, and light, along with the exquisite tension between his furious, operatic imagination and the elegant, meticulous design and execution of the film – the deep focus, extreme camera angles, striking dissolves, ingenious transition – that make it crackle with electricity. After Kane, movies were never the same. When asked to describe Welles’s influence, Jean-Luc Godard remarked, simply, ‘Everyone will always owe him everything.’

Too few of his contemporaries felt the same, and the fall soon followed. Envy of the boy wonder, the incessant hype of “Genius,” the sheer unpleasantness of his arrogance – all generated considerable ill will even before Welles arrived in Hollywood, and animosity grew with the mess that accompanied Kane. Charles Foster Kane was loosely based on newspaper magnate/despot William Randolph Hearst, who took umbrage with the portrayal and subsequently waged a brutal media war on Welles and RKO. Threats of crippling boycotts were made against the studio, potential exhibitors were intimidated, Hollywood executives were rallied to buy the Kane negative and destroy it. Welles endured, his masterpiece was saved, but, thanks largely to Hearst’s efforts, the film failed commercially.

Prospects for the second film were also bleak. Welles’s adaptation of The Magnificent Ambersons, about a prominent family whose downfall reflected the decline of American life caused by industrial expansion, was timed for release just as the country was maximizing industrial resources to win the war. Forced to relinquish final cut after the Kane ordeal, Welles left Ambersons with his editor, Robert Wise. Welles then went off, on behalf of the U.S. government, to make It’s All True, a short film anthology about Brazilian life and culture meant to strengthen U.S. relations with South America and keep them from siding with the Axis powers.

After disastrous preview screenings, the studio tried to “save” Ambersons by cutting almost an hour of footage, restructuring precisely crafted sequences, and adding an utterly incongruous happy ending. It flopped, and when It’s All True was left incomplete after shake-ups at RKO, Welles was branded a profligate director who abandoned unfinished work, a reputation that ruined his career as a mainstream filmmaker. For the rest of his life, he made his living acting, mostly in a remarkable range of pap, and if his dignity had not already been decimated by such roles as Unicron in Transformers: The Movie or as narrator on a Manowar album, in his final years, his obesity inspired a bizarre popular fixation that provided talk show hosts with endless fodder for cruel jokes. At the time of his death, much of the public knew him best for his girth, a bootleg recording of him sternly chiding an engineer over the nuances of a commercial voiceover for frozen peas, and as a shill for Paul Masson wines, solemnly intoning the meaningless assurance, “We will sell no wine before its time.” To most who even bothered to consider it, his life read as a cautionary tale on the dangers of hubris. There was the audacity of young genius, then Citizen Kane, then a lifelong plummet through the humiliations of commercial entertainment.

It’s a neat myth, and one maddening to cinephiles, as it ignores an epic achievement: in the decades since Kane, Welles fought continuously to make movies on his own terms, and under often ludicrous constraints, created a singular body of work, while establishing the template for generations of maverick filmmakers. He had brief forays into the studios, but otherwise shunned, he generated projects, funded them with his acting income, traveled the world seeking more funds, started productions, ran out of money, formed dubious financial alliances, got backing, lost backing, stopped productions, made more money acting, resumed productions, formed other dubious financial alliances, and repeated the Herculean routine for almost thirty years. Byzantine complications marred every endeavor, yet the results included Othello (awarded the Palme d’Or at the 1952 Cannes Film Festival), The Lady from Shanghai (“The weirdest great movie ever made” – Dave Kehr), Chimes at Midnight (“May be the greatest Shakespearean film ever made, bar none” – Vincent Canby), and Touch of Evil, about which Biskind writes has elements both “ridiculous” and “extraordinary,” and whose “gems alone are worth the price of admission, not to mention the entire careers of many directors.” That assessment can apply to any of Welles’s work made during the post-RKO years.

KaneBut the Ambersons/It’s All True incidents seem to have broken something in Welles, and the new chance to examine his ensuing ordeals, what Biskind calls “a depressing tale of frustration, often featuring Welles as his own worst enemy,” is the key appeal of My Lunches with Orson. The “depressing tale” obsesses fans: Welles only finished a dozen features, a few to his specifications, the rest butchered or mutilated (other words are rarely used for the tampering) by studios or producers. He was unable to finish any in the last twelve years of his life, and critic Jonathan Rosenbaum estimates that Welles left behind “approximately nineteen projects in various states of completion.” With the vagaries of his funders only partly accounting for the tally, what we struggle to understand is Welles’s compulsion to self-sabotage. His neglect often led to lost or stolen negatives and prints, even after Ambersons he would leave productions before editing was completed, and his inability to conclude projects after years of labor continues to mystify. In the years since his death, we’ve bemoaned these acts, the fragmentary nineteen, and persist in asking why it had to be. The speculation often feels endless and futile. And then, from a dark room, lost materials emerge, and we hope for new clues to finally solve the riddle.

* * *
Like many directors in the 1960s New Hollywood, Henry Jaglom revered Welles. About to begin his first film A Safe Place, Jaglom was determined to have Welles play the role of a magician. Biskind relates that Jaglom brazenly went to Welles’s hotel in New York, verbally jousted with his purple pajamas-clad hero, and secured the casting by assuring Welles he could wear a cape. They became friends, and for years Jaglom struggled to help Welles get acting jobs, positive press and financing, and most importantly, provided hope and purpose to tenuous endeavors that were always in danger of losing both.

He was realistic about the challenges:

[H]ow to reconcile the brilliant child prodigy, the precedent-shattering stage director, the iconoclastic radio figure, the celebrated Shakespearean artist, the groundbreaking filmmaker credited by almost everyone with having made the greatest movie of all time with the TV talk show buffoon, the corny wine commercial huckster, the willing participant in tasteless low-comedy ‘roasts,’ the bloated, seemingly self-destructive outcast whose unfinished works and aborted projects became legendary?

The answer would be as elusive to Jaglom as it has been to Welles’s biographers. But while he tried to figure it out, he and Welles ate, and while they ate, they talked, and in the three years leading to Welles’s death, Jaglom, at Welles’s request, recorded their conversations as they dined at Welles’s regular table in Los Angeles’s Ma Maison. After Welles died, Jaglom put the tapes in a shoebox, another unfinished Welles project relegated to a closet.

WellesJaglomMy Lunches with Orson contains the transcriptions of these conversations. Superbly edited by Biskind, a writer deeply sympathetic to the independent spirit and well-attuned to the complexities and contradictions of the film director as a breed, the book reads like Waiting for Godot, if Godot was a European financer, or Jack Nicholson, or a dog food manufacturer, or anyone who could provide Welles with the means to get back to filming. Godot didn’t show up for Welles either, but the waiting is fascinating, and in these casual, robust exchanges, we see a Welles both playful and morose, driven and defeated, optimistic and hopeless, seeking both patronage and independence, bursting with creative brio, yet tempered by the slow realization that things will not come to bear. And if these musings from the last, lamentable years don’t conclusively answer our Why, they compose a sad, lovely portrait, rich with pathos, of our artist in winter.

The pity is that Welles couldn’t make his living as a conversationalist. As Biskind notes, “There was no topic too insignificant or esoteric for Welles to weigh in on,” and the endless seduction of Welles’s authority, in matters both grave and banal, is a joy: guilt as “an entirely masculine invention,” shooting critics, “the height theory of history,” the humorless Sartre, the hilarious Leo Slezak, “the hostility of the comic,” the treachery of Peter Bogdanovich, the decline of Jewish musicianship, the wonders of the kiwi, Egyptian aesthetics in the Napoleonic Empire, the social value of farting dogs. The only thing that could still Welles, if only for a moment, was the arrival of a waiter, and even then he seemed incapable of a yes or no, as any interrogative offered opportunity for tale, digression, or rumination. For instance:

Waiter: [R]oast pork?

OW: Oh, my God. On a hot day, roast pork? I can’t eat pork. My diet. But I’ll order it, just to smell pork. Bassanio says to Shylock: ‘If it pleases you to dine with us.’ And Shylock says: ‘Yes, to smell pork; to eat of the habitation which your prophet the Nazarite conjured the devil into. I will buy with you, sell with you, talk with you, walk with you, and so following, but I will not eat with you, drink with you, or pray with you.’

HJ: Isn’t there something about the devil taking the shape of a pig in the Bible? Or did Shakespeare invent that?

OW: No, Jesus put a whole group of devils into the Gadarene swine. Shakespeare was just trying to give Shylock a reason for not eating with them.

HJ: I would like the grilled chicken.

Waiter: Okay.

After an exchange with Jaglom about sin, suffering, and free will shifts to coffee and dessert, Welles moans, “Oh, the irony of these kinds of conversations is that they end with: ‘Do you want some berries?’” But Biskind is wise in adhering to the erratic rhythms, the non-sequiturs, and reminders of setting, as the dining rituals give respite from the two dark undercurrents running through these conversations – the decay of romanticized Hollywood, and for Welles, the slow death of possibility. Welles called Hollywood “a snake pit,” and an anecdote from the introduction sets the warped context in which he saw himself struggling to thrive. Days after Welles delivered a tribute at Natalie Wood’s memorial, her husband Robert Wagner approached the table:

Welles asked, ‘Are you OK?’

‘Yes, fine.’

‘Such a terrible thing.’

‘But you know, you were great.’

‘I was?’

‘You were the best one.’

‘Thank you.’

‘The best one. It had so many elements. You were strong; you were poignant.’ After Wagner left, Welles turned to Jaglom and said, ‘You understand? You have just seen what Hollywood is really about. The man is in tears, he feels the tragedy, but he is so inured to reality, that for him it’s a show. And I gave the best performance. He’s giving me a review.’ Says Jaglom, ‘Even Orson was shocked.’

So too is Jaglom shocked when Welles tells him of Katharine Hepburn’s promiscuity (“she laid around town like nobody’s business”), Humphrey Bogart’s cowardice (“a very bad fighter, was always picking fights in nightclubs, in sure WaroftheWorldsBroadcastknowledge that the waiters would stop him”), the villainy of the great producers (Selznick was “a total monster,” Thalberg was “Satan”). Most disheartening is when a passage begins with Jaglom’s, “I’m dying to hear about Charlie Chaplin,” and ends with, “I feel like a little child told there’s no Santa Claus.” It’s depressing for us too, as Welles’s weariness and disgust become evident, and we sense our becoming privy to the end of something grand.

But the overly morose subtext is tempered by an abundance of good humor, and the Welles/Jaglom dynamic is a delight. The mutual fondness is obvious, but Welles knows his mark, and has great fun baiting Jaglom by pushing every politically incorrect button he can think of. In considering why Katharine Hepburn has never liked him, Welles offers:

OW: She doesn’t like the way I look. Don’t you know there’s such a thing as physical dislike? Europeans know that about other Europeans. If I don’t like somebody’s looks, I don’t like them. See, I believe that it is not true that different races and nations are alike. I’m profoundly convinced that that’s a total lie. I think people are different. Sardinians, for example, have stubby little fingers. Bosnians have short necks.

HJ: Orson, that’s ridiculous.

OW: Measure them. Measure them!

As Welles starts on Spencer Tracy (“a hateful, hateful man”), Jaglom offers:

HJ: If Tracy was hateful, none of that comes across in the work.

OW: To me it does. I hate him so. Because he’s one of those bitchy Irishmen.

HJ: One of those what?

OW: One of those bitchy Irishmen.

HJ: I can’t believe you said that.

OW: I’m a racist, you know. Here’s the Hungarian recipe for making an omelet. First, steal two eggs. [Alexander] Korda told me that.

HJ: But you like Korda.

OW: I love Hungarians to the point of sex! I almost get a hard-on when I hear a Hungarian accent, I’m so crazy about them.

HJ: I don’t understand why you’re saying that about the Irish.

OW: I know them; you don’t. They hate themselves. I lived for years in Ireland. The majority of intelligent Irishmen dislike Irishmen, and they’re right.

HJ: All these groups dislike themselves. Jews dislike themselves.

OW: Nothing like Irishmen.

HJ: That doesn’t make them right, Orson, and you know that. And I don’t accept this prejudice from you. I know that you don’t really have it.

OW: I do have it. I do have it. Particularly against Irish-Americans. I much prefer Irishmen from Ireland. If I have to have an Irishman, I’ll take one of those. …you know, some of my best friends are Irishmen.

HJ: Oh, God!

And on it goes, Welles expounding on his bigotry, Jaglom by turns indignant and inquisitive. It’s great shtick, with flares of unguarded bitterness, as Welles continually asserts nonsense, and Jaglom responds in kind: “That’s preposterous.” “Orson, you’re behaving like an asshole.” “You’re making this up.” “Orson, what are you talking about? This is a stupid conversation.” When the newly AIDS-phobic Welles greets Jaglom by suggesting they somehow hug facing opposite directions, Jaglom finally asks, “Is this a comedy routine?” And to a degree it is, with Welles playing Archie Bunker with a 150 IQ, and Jaglom his Meathead, rebuking accordingly, then redirecting back to sensible discourse.

WellesWelles knew he was being recorded. The discovery here is not of Welles the racist, but of his boundless ability to make mischief. What My Lunches with Orson shows is Orson Welles as drama machine, always creating or reshaping the narratives of his life at the slightest inducement. Truth was irrelevant, facts just malleable tools for instigation. “There can be nothing more sterile than an extended conversation between two people who basically agree,” he says. “If we basically disagreed, we’d be getting somewhere.” So, what kind of assertion would make for a more entertaining story, a richer argument, a more fertile discussion? Flattery or offense? About capers or Sardinian appendages? No conflict, no drama; and Welles, the master dramatist, provided conflict as needed.

What an extraordinary friendship it must have been, and how welcome their affections are as we slide towards the dreaded inevitable. Mentioned throughout are four projects Welles was actively seeking to develop – a version of King Lear, a film based on two Isak Dinesen stories called The Dreamers, a movie based on the Mercury production of The Cradle Will Rock, and an original screenplay called The Big Brass Ring. Possible backers, potential interest, reasons and rationales keeping Welles from starting, emerge and recede. Promised funds never materialize. Forthcoming contracts never arrive. Coffee is ordered. Conversation continues.

Then, an offer. Producer Arnon Milchan agrees to provide a budget for The Big Brass Ring, and to give Welles final cut if he can sign an A-list actor for the lead:

OW: No dark, funny-looking guys. I want an Irish leading man like Jack [Nicholson], or at least an all-American WASP.

HJ: Why?

OW: It’s the president of the United States. Were you born yesterday?

HJ: That’s all changed. Everyone said a Catholic couldn’t get elected president, then Kennedy got elected. Everyone said a divorced guy couldn’t get elected, and then Reagan did.

OW: That will never change. Never. You can’t do a story like this and have some Italian play that role: ‘Cazzo, you gotta respect-a the president, and that’s-a me.’

HJ: That’s disgusting.

OW: Oh, you want Dusty Hoffman? ‘Oy, vey, don’t be such a putz, kill ‘em.’

HJ: You’ve got a very fifties, fucked-up idea of what looks American.

OW: You’re my bleeding heart. I was more left than you’ll ever be.

HJ: What about Paul Newman?

OW: Paul Newman would work.

HJ: Newman’s Jewish.

OW: He’s not ethnic. I don’t care if they’re Jewish; I don’t care if they’re Italian, but they can’t be ethnic. Hoffman is ethnic, Pacino is ethnic.

HJ: So no Jews, no Italians…

OW: No. This has to be a guy from the heartland of America. Or we don’t have a movie.

HJ: The one who was totally willing to do it was De Niro, without even reading the script, and you just—

OW: Don’t try to sell me on De Niro. I don’t care how great you think he is.

HJ: He’s too ethnic also?

OW: Not just ethnic, though that’s part of it. More it’s that the great things he does on the screen…none of them look to me like the qualities of a candidate. You’re writing off an awful lot of the country with him. My candidate is a fellow who’s got to carry Kansas. I really don’t see De Niro carrying Kansas.

HJ: OK. Here’s more news. I don’t know if it’s good or bad. I had a call from The Love Boat. They want you from May twenty-first until June twelfth…

And, back to waiting. Jaglom’s patience seems inexhaustible, but eventually even he couldn’t avoid the inevitable Why. Before the conversations begin, he offers a journal entry with his theory, that Kane and Welles “are so affecting and so near-perfect that the idea of watching anything else after seemed incomprehensible. I wonder, Was there nothing for him to do with the rest of his life after making it, is that his secret and does he know it? Is Citizen Kane his ‘rosebud’?” This line is never followed, but even if it had been, Jaglom might have rethought its simplicity after two remarkable exchanges. In the first, Welles pitches to an HBO exec (the pseudonymous Susan Smith), and, having barely begun, just gives up, insisting “Her eyes went dead,” and despite Jaglom’s desperate attempts to keep the meeting alive, and Smith’s repeated insistence that she wants to hear more, refuses to continue. After Smith leaves, Jaglom changes the subject, but after another conversation about Welles’s dire financial situation, he brings up Welles’s last completed feature, F for Fake, a sui generis film essay made on a very small budget, and using it as a point of reference, practically pleads for an answer to Welles’s stasis:

HJ: I know this irritates you, but I keep getting back to the fact, Orson, that I don’t fully understand why, with all the frustration that you have to deal with, you don’t invent a film like F for Fake, which you know you can do brilliantly, while you’re waiting for these projects to go forward.

OW: I need money. When I had F for Fake, I had money.

HJ: How much did F for Fake cost?

OW: Very little, but I had it. And F for Fake was such a flop in America, you know.

HJ: I keep thinking that whether they get it or not at the exact time that you make it, eventually, they’ll get it!

OW: We don’t agree, you see. Essentially, I don’t believe in a film that isn’t a commercial success. Film is a popular art form. It has to have at least the kind of success that European and early Woody Allen movies had. People should be in those tiny theaters, lining up to see it. And they didn’t do it with F for Fake.

HJ: So why don’t you – I hope you don’t mind my bringing it up – cut one of your unfinished films and release it? Or why don’t you do some commercials again?

OW: No personal essay film will make any money, you know that. F for Fake proved it. If Wesson oil would let me say that Wesson Oil is good, instead of Houseman, I’d be delighted, but nobody will take me for a commercial. It’s just a closed door, and I don’t understand why… It’s a very weird and terrible situation. I don’t know where to turn. Except I can’t… I can’t…

HJ: During the period when you’re preparing for Lear, or for Dreamers – Orson, I’m not – Please don’t be mad at me.

OW: No, I’m not mad at you. I’m explaining to you that it’s not like I’m just sitting around doing nothing. I’m working on scripts that might make some money. And they take all kinds of time. I’ve been fighting the income tax people for a long while now. The deals for Lear, even, include very big salaries for me that would get me out of trouble with them. And that’s what I need. I can’t afford to sit down in the cutting room with my old films. I have the cheapest competent editor, who’s willing to work as a kind of favor for eight hundred dollars a week. But I haven’t got eight hundred dollars a week to give the man. And I have big obligations, so that – that’s the awful thing – I’m not a free soul. I’m doing the impossible thing of trying to make money off the kind of movies that don’t make money.

There would be no A-list actor for The Big Brass Ring, French financing for Lear would fall through, Welles would dismiss Cradle as a suitable comeback, and the brief, nebulous possibility of “some people…two girls and two guys” to finance The Dreamers came to nothing.

* * *
RosebudKaneWelles died from a heart attack at age 70. Some reports say he was found on his bedroom floor next to his typewriter, some say hunched over it. Either way, he had worked until his dying day, and as he long expected, all those in Hollywood who wouldn’t offer support eulogized him rapturously once he was gone.

By the end, his weariness must have been monumental, and he was prone to depression. But as My Lunches with Orson shows, his powers to entrance never faltered. And neither, unfortunately, did the indefinable flaw that kept him from seeing ideas to completion.

Still, his admirers persist. Portrait of Gina, a pilot for a television series left by Welles in a Paris hotel, was found, thirty years later, in a storage room. Rolls of footage from It’s All True were discovered in the RKO vaults, and were reconstructed to ravishing effect in a documentary of the same name in 1993. The Criterion Collection issued a DVD package with the two butchered, circulated cuts of Mr. Arkadin, as well as a reconstructed third version that attempted to stay true to Welles’s intentions. Touch of Evil was restored and re-edited by Walter Murch, using an unheeded 58-page memo of editing suggestions that Welles had sent the studio after viewing their cut.

And still we dream, that the stolen negative of The Merchant of Venice will be recovered, that legal issues will be resolved and The Other Side of the Wind finally released, or that the impossible legend is true, that somewhere there’s a rough cut of The Magnificent Ambersons, sent to Welles during his time in Brazil, with all the original footage intact. Or that more tapes exist of the indefatigable storyteller, and will one day be pulled from a shoebox. Or for anything that lets us once again ask our Why, as if the answer will somehow bind those stray, brilliant shards, and all will finally become whole.

Steve Danziger is managing editor of Fiction magazine, teacher at City College, member of the Terranova Theater Collective, volunteer at the Housing Works Bookstore, and loiterer at the Hungarian Pastry Shop.