Orson Welles: hmmm.... well, as I read "My Lunches With Orson: Conversations Between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles" I liked him, admired him, didn't like him so much, was charmed by him, felt sorry for him, was awed by him and amused by him.
|In real life, Orson had much better table manners|
Edited by Peter Biskind, the book is essentially a record of a series of taped 1970s-1980s conversations between filmmaker Jaglom and Welles at Ma Maison. Welles had appeared in Jaglom's A Safe Place earlier in the 1970s and the 2 men shared an irresistible camaraderie. Jaglom functioned as friend, sometimes agent, cheerleader and shoulder for Welles, who, in his twilight, refused to go quietly. Welles, for his part, supplied the good conversation.
|Always the director|
Having been brought up to revere Welles as a cinematic genius, it's a little shocking to see this great man in such dire financial straits at the end of his life. While he had many irons in the fire and projects on the drawing board, he could not get proper financing or cooperation for any of them. In his old age, he was a victim of his reputation for walking away from projects before they were finished. But the sly old magician was worth his considerable weight in gold for his insights, wit and occasional honesty.
|Welles and Henry Jaglom|
The main topic of the lunches (in which Welles always was accompanied by his dog, Kiki) was Welles' current projects of King Lear, The Dreamers and the unreleased The Other Side of the Wind. However, I think most folks will find his keen and often hilarious opinions about Hollywood to be the most entertaining aspect of the book. And if Welles was one thing, it was opinionated!
Here are some favorite observations by Welles.
On David O. Selznick's obsessive compulsion to win:
OW: I was close to David because friends of mine liked him. I used to go to his house on Sunday nights. everybody in Hollywood would be there, and we'd plan "The Game," which was just charades, you know. But Selznick wanted to win. Week after week after week. If our team lost, he would follow us in our cars down the driveway, screaming insults at us for having been such idiots, with his voice echoing through the canyons as we drove away. He would become so violent that it was worth it. I was funny just to watch him. And then he had us back the next week. "Now we're gonna win," you see?
Once Selznick wanted to have a fight with me This was at Walter Wanger's house. After the ladies had left, the gentlemen sat around drinking port. He said how disappointed he was not to have Ronald Colman in Rebecca. Because he had this fellow Olivier. Th"What's wrong with Olivier?" He said, "He's no gentleman." And I said, "David, what kind of shit is this? What are you talking about, 'no gentleman'?" "Well, he just isn't. You can just tell that. But with Ronnie - you know right away - he's a gentleman." And I said, "Why you pious old fart." So David stood up, took off his glasses, and assumed the fighting position. We went out in the backyard, and everybody held us back.
HJ: You were really going to fight?
OW: Oh yes. We used to do that all the time in Hollywood, always stepping out in the garden and fighting. While everyone held you, and nothing ever happened.
On Joan Fontaine in Jane Eyre:
OW: Oh her, Joan Fontaine. No, she's no good in it. She's just a plain old bad actor... Neither she nor her sister Olivia de Havilland could act. I never understood their careers.
A typical maddening observation that can only make you smile:
OW: My idea of art - which I do not propose to be universal - is that it must be affirmative.
OW: Life-affirming. I reject everything that is negative. You know, I just don't like Dostoevsky. Tolstoy is my writer. Gogol is my writer. I'm not a Joyce guy, though I see that he's one of the great writers of this century.
HJ: God knows he's not affirmative.
OW: No, and that's why I don't like him.
HJ: But wait a minute, Orson, what are you talking about? This is a stupid conversation. Touch of Evil is not affirmative.
OW: Listen, none of my reactions about art have anything to do with what I do. I'm the exception!
On rejecting Dustin Hoffman and Robert DeNiro as too ethnic to play a presidential candidate for a proposed film.
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.
When Jaglom encourages Welles to make nice with the Head of the Cannes Film Festival:
HJ: Speaking of France, Gilles Jacob, who's now the head of the Cannes Film Festival, wants to stop by and say hello to you.
OW: Sucking up to the Cannes Film Festival people, eh?
HJ: I don't have to suck up to him. They love me. Now I just want you to be nice, Orson.
OW: He's a member of the "criminal class." Anyone connected with the Cannes Film Festival is a crook.
HJ: Please, Orson, don't be ridiculous.
OW: Don't worry. I'll be gentle. You have no idea. I'm a hypocrite. A sellout.
Along the way there are lots of pithy comments about Irving Thalberg, John Barrymore, Carole Lombard, Charlton Heston, Joseph Cotten, The Love Boat, Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons and more. He has only warm things to say about Rita Hayworth and agonizes daily over the late-in-life success of his mortal enemy and former Mercury Theatre partner, John Houseman. While Welles lost his Paul Mason advertising gig ("we will sell no wine before its time") by publicly stating that he lost weight by omitting wine from his diet, Houseman was riding high with Smith-Barney ads and an Academy Award. He is extremely harsh on Chaplin, but 2 geniuses in the same room must have been 1 too many.
|Oh, to have been a fly on the wall!|
So - can you tell that it is a terrific read? If you love great conversation, especially great conversation about old Hollywood, you will love this book. And, despite or because of all of his flaws, I think you'll like Orson, too.
"My Lunches With Orson: Conversations between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles," edited by Peter Biskind is published by Henry Holt and Company, who graciously provided a copy for my reading enjoyment.