Alternately sad, hilarious, outrageous, and revelatory, My Lunches with Orson is the must-read Peter Biskind-edited book of transcribed tape-recorded conversations between the great director-writer-actor Orson Welles and his friend, confidant, disciple, and go-between in those terrible last years, fellow director-writer-actor Henry Jaglom.
By the late 1970s through the mid ‘80s, Welles’s meteoric rise in the 1930s and early forties was a distant memory. His last completed work, F for Fake (1974), was barely released, and though today it’s recognized as a daring, innovative work, and the time it was mostly met with hostile reviews. Pauline Kael’s vicious essay, Raising Kane, since discredited, tried to deny Welles his unimpeachable masterpiece, Citizen Kane (1941), suggesting co-writer Herman J. Mankiewicz was the true auteur behind that film. Later, Charles Higham, infamous for his disreputable, trashy “biographies” (e.g., Errol Flynn: The Untold Story; Higham was also notorious among his peers as a thief, pilfering one-of-a-kind archive material) further damaged Welles’s career with books theorizing that Welles pathologically abandoned projects before they were finished.
But Welles was a peerless cinema artist responsible for the movie widely regarded as the greatest ever made, to say nothing of nearly a dozen or so other masterpieces and near-masterpieces. And yet no one, even the most successful actors and directors in Hollywood, people who regarded Welles as a personal friend and a major influence on their own careers, would help him when he needed them most. Instead, during this time, Welles was forced to rely on income as a pitchman (for Paul Masson wines, etc.) and intermittent work doing TV guest spots and movie cameos.
The exception was Henry Jaglom, who directed Welles in Jaglom’s first movie, A Safe Place (1971), as well as Welles’s last film appearance, in Jaglom’s charming Someone to Love (1985). Jaglom called in every favor, asking friends and colleagues from his BBS/New Hollywood days and beyond, contacts he had made through the distributions and film festival screenings of his own films (Sitting Ducks, Can She Bake a Cherry Pie?, etc.) to locate financing for Welles’s latest projects: The Big Brass Ring about a gay presidential candidate in 1940s America; The Cradle Will Rock, an autobiographical project about the Federal Theatre Project’s 1937 musical of the same name; a version of King Lear to have starred Welles; and The Dreamers, based on two stories by Isak Dinesen that was to have starred Welles’s partner, Oja Kodar.
The dismally unsuccessful efforts to get any of these projects made has long been the source of much speculation and confusion, but My Lunches with Orson traces the unraveling of these projects in heartbreaking detail and clarity.
And yet My Lunches with Orson isn’t merely depressing. The great raconteur Welles was on myriad talk shows of the period is also on display, but here, privately dining with Jaglom at Ma Maison, he speaks with a candor that, on almost every page, is outrageously funny and revealing. For instance, there’s a long discussion where Jaglom passes along an offer for Welles to appear on The Love Boat, which Welles is reluctant to accept. The money isn’t so hot and the obvious lure for down-and-out talent – a free cruise – doesn’t appeal to him. “They don’t know that I can go on any cruise in the world free,” he says, “if I lecture, or do magic one night and then sign autographs.”
But there’s another reason: “I don’t like the man who plays the captain. From Mary Tyler Moore. He has a kind of New York accent that gets my hackles up. I can’t stand it!”
Welles gleefully gets Jaglom’s hackles up, too, saying outrageous things about various actors (e.g., “Larry [Olivier] is very – I mean, seriously – stupid”; he refers to Dudley Moore as “the dwarf,” etc.”), films (he and Jaglom share a dislike of Vertigo but argue over the merits of Powell & Pressburger), and various nationalities and ethnicities. “Sardinians, for example, have stubby little fingers. Bosnians have short necks…Measure them. Measure them!”
The book, of course, is much more than this, with Welles making astute observations of 20th century history and art that he was so much a part of, as well as prescient statements about Hollywood and the industry that so stupidly rejected him. Most significantly, it helps clarify exactly why (and because of whom) he was ultimately unable to get any of these promising works off the ground, and identifying those who, like Prince Hal in Falstaff, rejected him and broke his heart.
Long after reading My Lunches with Orson some questions remained, and Henry Jaglom generously took time out from the busy postproduction of his latest film, Ovation (2015), to answer them:
WCP: Reading and hearing about Orson Welles’s last years, prior to this book one had the image of the two of you desperately trying to sell people these magnificent projects, but that no one was buying. The book reveals a subtly different reality, one more complex, that instead of Welles being bereft of any offers at all, the two of you were fielding a variety of obscenely complex proposals, some shaky at their end rather than yours. Welles, however, was quite understandably cautious. He wasn’t about to agree to anything without a signed contract that ensured him final cut, and one that explicitly detailed where and how certain things would be done, and by whom. For instance, at one point he’s very insistent that postproduction on one project be done in the United States (rather than France) for tax reasons. On another (or maybe it was the same project) he talks about wanting to make sure that he retained home video rights. In other words, rather than the image of the artist denied his paints it was more a case of the artist desperately wanting to move forward but more so wanting to ensure that he wouldn’t get screwed over like so many times in the past?
Henry Jaglom: No, basically it was about him being denied his paints, though it is also true that his need for self-protection required certain things, certain freedom, casting, final cut. But essentially no one was buying, except that one time with Arnon Milchan and the actors Milchan required all said no in one way or another. No one else ever offered a real deal.
WCP: Well, then, do you imagine if the deal hadn’t fallen apart that he might have compromised his position on some things in order to make it happen, or would he have held film, even if that meant killing an offer? What if, say, everything had been set, but they insisted on an actor Welles didn’t like (e.g., Al Pacino or Dustin Hoffman in The Big Brass Ring)?
Henry Jaglom: All three too “ethnic” he said, couldn’t win the Midwest, couldn’t become President. Wish he’d lived to see Obama, it was beyond his imagination. Wish my parents, for that matter, had lived to see the unimaginable Obama.
WCP: Other than Cameron Crowe’s Conversations with Wilder, I can’t think of another book where one can clearly hear the subject’s voice, and all the subtleties that go with it, as one reads it. (I didn’t hear Hitchcock’s voice while reading Truffaut’s book, for instance.) As you and Peter Biskind were putting all this material together, did the Orson Welles you knew so well come alive again in that sense, a person that was in some ways very different from his public persona?
Henry Jaglom: He was, on the tapes, exactly as I had remembered him nearly 30 years before
WCP: Near the end of the book Welles is essentially saying that he’s got to make a living with money coming in NOW, not later. That people didn’t seem to realize that he, too, was mortal, That he had bills to pay, people to support, that he couldn’t devote a year of his life on a film, however personally rewarding, if founded on a vague promise that he’d be paid once everything’s done. What struck me as so profoundly sad about those remarks is that they’re nearly identical to what scads of struggling professional writers with a couple of books or scripts under their belts go through all the time – only in this case, here it was happening to the greatest living filmmaker. There’s a lesson in there somewhere, but I’m not sure what it is.
Henry Jaglom: Exactly. I don’t see a question here, though.
WCP: Well, maybe it’s more an observation that the book clarifies just how tragic the situation was, that on one hand he had to eat and pay bills just like the rest of us, and to the degree that impeded his ability to make films, that – try as you might – he was in a pretty hopeless situation. Let me put it another way: What should have been in place then, and perhaps still needs to been in place now, to ensure artists like Welles are able to work? Some sort of National Endowment for the Arts program? One partially funded by the major film companies? And, were he now the age he was then, do you think the adoption of new technologies like HD video would have made it easier for him to keep making films, or has the distribution end of things changed so radically that it might be worse?
Henry Jaglom: Yes, only a National Government thing would have made a difference. Films can be made much less expensively now, the technology would have enthralled him, but distribution theatrically is much worse. But non-theatrically has become something else and I think that the long form of quality TV that started with The Sopranos, combined with the incredible simplification of the technologies would have allowed him to possibly thrive. But the problem was he didn’t want to make films like mine with limited audiences like I’m happy with. He had had too big a taste of mass success (even if never financial success) to make “small” films for limited audiences, he needed to “show them” that he was still capable of making a BIG film, especially after F For Fake failed to even get distribution. (Today I could have distributed it like I did for Max Schell’s My Sister Maria and several their films.) But, once having failed at even that, the small art film, he reverted to the idea that his “next” film should show “them” that he was still in their game. That was his most self-destructive notion, combined with the idea that I was lucky because I wanted to make films about ”people sitting in rooms talking to one another” and he needed to bring “Elephants onto the hills above Rome,” [as] he would say.
WCP: Throughout the book, Welles frequently expresses very strong, negative opinions about seemingly unimpeachable movies and directors. For instance, I was surprised by his dislike of Powell & Pressburger, who movies I would have expected him to adore for their intelligence and cinematic innovation. Do you think he really felt that way? Or did he sometimes say something controversial for effect, or could his opinions have been colored by so many decades of professional disappointments at being treated so badly?
Henry Jaglom: He certainly said some things for effect or mostly to get a rise out of me, like some of his silly stuff about the Irish and some other groups, but what he said about actors and directors and movies expressed his real views in every case.
He knew I loved Powell and Pressburger, so perhaps he said whatever more strongly than he might otherwise. But where we agreed, like on post-black-and-white Hitchcock like Vertigo he was just as strong and opinionated. These comments were his real views, [and] I don’t believe they were influenced by his disappointments or said for effect.
WCP: And yet the book is often hysterically funny in the way Welles criticizes fellow actors. For example, saying John Gielgud played Shakespeare “as though he were dictating it to his secretary…’Witness this army…Have you got that, Miss Jones? Such mass and charge, led by a delicate and tender prince…Am I going too fast for you?’” This was a facet of his personally one normally didn’t see on The Merv Griffin Show.
Henry Jaglom: But he meant the criticisms he made, and the judgments about others and their work, even when he knew he was being funny and entertaining. We knew each other so well and this book only reflects a small percent of that. But, of course, he wasn’t going to show that side on Merv Griffin.
WCP: During the last ten years of his life, friends and professional colleagues in a position to help him get one of his films off the ground essentially turned their back on him. My Lunches with Orson identifies some of these people. And while most of the actors and filmmakers Welles has harsh words for have since passed away (Olivier, Charlton Heston, et. al.), some of the others are still living. Have you heard from people like Peter Bogdanovich, John Landis, Burt Reynolds or others since its publication? And were you and Peter Biskind compelled to leave anything out?
Henry Jaglom: My deal with Biskind was that the only things I could insist on his taking out were personal things about Oja Kodar, though I did get him, with some pressure, to agree to take out one most personal item about Bogdanovich and one intimate one about Spielberg, both I felt much too personal. Yes, John Landis called me up and was very upset and – needless to say – so was my old friend Peter, to put it mildly, especially after Maureen Dowd’s review in The New York Times. I don’t know Burt Reynolds but can’t imagine he can read.
WCP: According to the book, there was a kind of unspoken agreement that the subject of Welles’s weight was off-limits. What the book doesn’t address, and perhaps you never discussed with him but maybe the backers you negotiated with, was the question of whether or not he was insurable, what with all his various maladies. Was that ever a concern, and did you ever discuss a back-up plan/director should he have become unable to finish one of these late-career movies, as was done with John Huston on The Dead?
Henry Jaglom: His weight was the one subject we never talked about, though he would from time to time tell me how many laps he had swum that day, trying to earnestly prove that he was trying. And when we were together in LA or New York or Paris or Cannes he ate carefully, but I learned that late nights at hotels were a very different story. Whether he was insurable never came up, strangely enough, because we knew there were doctors who would write what was necessary. What various maladies, his knees were his main problem. Your mentioning John Huston reminds me of one of the most touching days. Shortly after Orson died, Huston called and came up to my cutting room to see footage on my Kem of Orson talking about this and that in his last film, which I was cutting, Someone To Love. Huston with an oxygen mask attached to his face and a nurse/girlfriend carrying it, as he sat and watched his old friend for the last time.
WCP: What are your thoughts on the current plans to release The Other Side of the Wind?
Henry Jaglom: You know as much as I do. It was some of my best acting and scenes from it moved around the Internet a few years ago, which was fun and are now vanished. It was hard to tell what it would look like if somehow all put together. I am skeptical but Bogdanovich tells me that they are “working on it.”
WCP: This year marks the centenary of Orson Welles’s birth. Will you be participating in any special screenings/events to mark the occasion?
Henry Jaglom: All kinds of people planning all kinds of things. Did you see the four shows on TCM with me hosting about Orson one night some months ago, two of his films and two of mine? Interviews about him in-between. It was well done, and they are talking about something for his 100th Birthday, as are many others.
WCP: You’re now several years older than Welles was when he passed away. When you look back at those conversations now, can you see things now that you couldn’t see when you were in your forties? And are there things the older, wiser Henry Jaglom wishes the younger version of yourself had asked him about?
Henry Jaglom: Really? I’m older than Orson was? Wow, I feel like a kid, the same age I was then. Hard to believe but I’ll take your word for it. No, there is absolutely nothing I feel that would be different, nothing I didn’t see and feel I understood about him back then, nothing I can think of that I would have asked him about that I didn’t. I’ve always been very open and easily communicative and Orson made it easy to be that way with him because he was so open and communicative with me. I just wish I could show him the films I’ve made; that would be a lot of fun.
It was also really interesting to discover that Welles had some input into your screenplay for Always. Since his death, when you’re writing, shooting, or cutting do you ever ask yourself, “What would Orson do?”
Henry Jaglom: All the time! I have tapes somewhere of his sitting behind me smoking his cigar while I’m editing Can She Bake A Cherry Pie? and commenting and suggesting all sorts of things. I always have his voice in my ear while I edit, which I’m doing right now as I write this, on my new film, Ovation.