By Jeff Simon
NEWS BOOK REVIEWER
“Dish” we call it. When a very small, three-part excerpt from this virtuoso performance of jaw-dropping talk was excerpted in New York magazine, “dish” is how it was billed in the cover tease, as in “Orson Welles dishes.”
Hooey. If “dish” as a noun is what we’re used to in the daily spitballs of indiscretion we’ve all learned to consume with our morning coffee, another larger word entirely is required here. “Bowl” perhaps, at the very least. Or “vat.” Or “quarry.”
If “dish” is all you’re looking for, “My Lunches With Orson” is the mother lode, even in what is one of the greatest years in a long time for wallowing in first-person narratives of Hollywood nobility.
First and most literate of all was Richard Burton’s Diaries (wherein Welles is the butt of nasty fat jokes and Marlon Brando is referred to in passing as “fatty”). Then came Debbie Reynolds’ memoir. And then some “secret conversations” with one of Reynolds’ tough and raunchy old female MGM pals Ava Gardner (another, of course, was lusty, stevedore-tongued Liz Taylor before the bad blood).
Nothing – not even Burton’s huge and extraordinary but occasionally enervating “Diaries” – comes close to the charismatic presence, brilliance and demolition derby of repute found in “My Lunches With Orson.”
Burton himself, for instance, is treated so wretchedly by Welles that Henry Jaglom, his constant lunch companion at L.A.’s Ma Maison, kicks him under the table and calls him an “a--hole” and berates Welles for it. Poor Burton slinks away from the table treated by the great man as if he were an importunate waiter or bus boy (to whom, repeatedly, in the book, Welles is notably chilly when not pedagogically rude. The grandeur of Welles’ democratic affections was about evenly split between reality and theory).
Welles responds to Jaglom’s objections thusly: “Do not kick me under the table. I hate that. I don’t need you as my conscience, my Jewish Jiminy Cricket. Especially, do not KICK my boots. You know how they protect my ankles. Richard Burton had a great talent. He’s ruined his gifts. He’s become a joke with a celebrity wife. Now, he just works for money, does the worst s---. And I wasn’t rude, to quote Carl Laemmle, I gave him an evasive answer. I told him ‘Go F--- Yourself.”
A great Hollywood figure couldn’t be much more lacking in the milk of human kindness than that. At the same time, he could hardly be more viciously entertaining in explaining himself.
As that long-departed vaudeville star Al Jolson used to say, you ain’t heard nuthin’ yet. I almost dropped this book when I read how much Welles hated Spencer Tracy. My grip was slightly better when I read how stupid he thought Laurence Olivier was, but I couldn’t keep my head from shaking when I read how much of a “hack” he considered John Huston.
They’d been in each other’s films, for pity’s sake – and in Welles’ case at the end of his career where such an appearance in Welles’ homemade films was a gift one bestowed on one of the all-time great geniuses of their mutual profession.
Welles returns the favor by observing – just before, no less, he’s scheduled to give Huston a tribute at his AFI Life Achievement Award ceremony – that Huston “just knows how to make a picture without directing it. He just sits and lets the choreographer or somebody else do it. He stays up and plays poker all night and when he’s shooting, that’s when he’s resting.”
Remember that. Somewhat incredibly, it says more about Welles than it does about Huston.
What is utterly obvious about this book is what is – oddly – somewhat downplayed by great film historian Peter Biskind in his introduction to his yeoman efforts to collect these conversations into the current outrageous, hilarious, tragic and wildly readable form they’re in.
Welles himself asked Jaglom to record these conversations. His only stipulation is that the device be out of sight.
But I’d argue that Welles, at this stage – the final two years of his life (he died of a heart attack in 1985) – knew what his strengths and weaknesses were. He was always one of the great talkers of all time, especially when encouraged to be so by a brilliant admirer.
And Jaglom was all of that. A notably peculiar filmmaker (some of his comedies are wonderfully odd), Jaglom filled the role that Welles’ old friend Peter Bogdanovich once filled for Welles, i.e. protege, amanuensis, interlocutor and part-time agent and advocate wherever he might chance to know someone who could help this titanic (in every way) American figure find gainful employment, the closer to filmmaking the better.
But I’d submit that as you explore the dark side of the book’s second half where many of their conversations concern all of Welles’ inchoate film projects, you can detect a strong element of fear in Welles’ querulousness and constant friction with would-be investors.
Even in one of the two most famously ruined careers in Hollywood history (the other was Erich Von Stroheim’s), this master who’d directed one of the greatest films in history (“Citizen Kane”) his first time out was, I think, giving constant evidence that he quite simply, no longer, had the physical health to do it anymore.
Making a film is hard physical work – especially if you did it Welles’ way, overseeing everything as a true “auteur” of the complete finished work. Hours are long. Concentration is immensely demanding.
Huston, in his magnificent, final film “The Dead,” could still “direct” the film from a wheelchair and using an oxygen tank because he had two of his children on the set constantly to steer whatever needed to be steered.
That’s why Welles – shockingly – badmouths a friend. He could never continue to make films if it had to be Huston’s way. At the same time, only Welles – and no one else – could have physically known what it was like to wake up inside Welles’ aging, mountainous body. You have to suspect that all his finagling conversations with Jaglom were going nowhere to Welles’ considerable secret relief. He was spared another failure, another humiliation, as heartbreaking as the conversations can be.
Especially, as Biskind says in his introduction here, if he was capable of polishing off four steaks in the wee hours (surely that must be absurd hyperbole. Then again, take a look at late-life photos of Welles. Maybe not.).
The role Jaglom seems to have filled at the end was more famously filled earlier by Bogdanovch. Bogdanovich abandoned it when his own fame and relationship operas (with Cybill Shepherd, murdered playmate Dorothy Stratten) proved terminally distracting.
Welles blasts his former acolyte Bogdanovich as brutally as Huston. Irving Thalberg, to Welles, was Satan. David Selznick, little better. His case against both is extreme but solid. So is his case against Olivier, whom Welles once witnessed sending closeted homosexual Charles Laughton – whom Welles admired as an actor and liked – into tears. Forgiveness was, to understate, not high on Welles’ virtues, especially when the injured party was someone, like Laughton, whom he thought had the emotional makeup of a 14-year old.
The closer someone might be to Welles’ competition in any way whatsoever, the more likely they’d be bashed by Welles over lunch with rambunctious quotability.
At the same time, that led him into ridiculous prejudices and blind spots. He couldn’t see American period Hitchcock for dirt, not even “Vertigo” (which he hated) or “Rear Window” (in which Jimmy Stewart was guilty of “overacting.” What else could an actor spending a movie confined to a chair DO?)
But lord what a savagely entertaining and insanely readable book this is.
No one even marginally interested in American film or theater should miss it. Even those of minimal curiosity about Welles and his world would have to be dead between the ears not to be compelled by this outrageous, singular voice in American film.
Of course, he told Jaglom to preserve these insanely interesting conversations at their Ma Maison lunch table. His history and voice and personality and conversational genius were quite possibly all that was left to him in perfect working order.
He always needed money. He was here a man whose Paul Masson commercials and Dean Martin Celebrity Roast checks were drying up, like everything else.
My oh my, though, how that man could sing for his supper – posthumous though it is.
Jeff Simon is The News’ Arts and Books Editor.
My Lunches With Orson: Conversations Between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles
Edited and with an Introduction by Peter Biskind
306 pages, $28