“My Lunches With Orson: Conversations Between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles” (Metropolitan Books), by Peter Biskind
Orson Welles would enter the trendy Los Angeles restaurant Ma Maison through the kitchen, thus avoiding being seen arriving by wheelchair. His girth as wide as his talent, the director of 1941′s “Citizen Kane” sat in a mammoth restaurant chair with his toy poodle, Kiki. Eager for almost any kind of work in the early 1980s, the one-time boy wonder behind the film regularly declared the greatest ever made had become a living symbol of how Hollywood could abandon its geniuses.
For years, the writer and director Henry Jaglom joined Welles at Ma Maison nearly every week. He was Welles’ unofficial agent and representative, trying to get his friend’s movie projects off the ground. Over lunch, they discussed practically anything — Welles’ weight was out of bounds — and Welles offered seemingly unguarded observations, at times humorous and profane, in spite of the presence of a tape recorder.
On actors: “English actors are more modest than Americans, because they’ve never had (“method” acting teacher) Lee Strasberg to teach ‘em that they know better than the director.”
On gossip columnists Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper: “You don’t know the power those two cows had in this town! People opened the paper, ignoring Hitler and everything else, and turned right to Louella and Hedda.”
On the Irish: “They hate themselves. I lived for years in Ireland. The majority of intelligent Irishmen dislike Irishmen, and they’re right.”
Decades after Welles’ death in 1985, author Peter Biskind presents the transcripts from those recorded lunches. Welles appears uncensored — and it’s not a pretty sight. Fascinating, amusing and eye-opening, to be sure, but “My Lunches With Orson” is yet more evidence that one of the wonderful minds of theater and film was in a creative death spiral in his final years. Not that Welles didn’t have ideas, but he couldn’t find backers for them — and that was a dark weight on his mind.
Lightening up their chats are his tart appraisals of stars like Laurence Olivier (“seriously stupid”), Norma Shearer (“one of the most minimally talented ladies ever to appear on the silver screen”), Humphrey Bogart (“both a coward and a very bad fighter”), Spencer Tracy (“I hate him so … he’s one of those bitchy Irishmen”) and Joan Fontaine (“just a plain old bad actor … she’s got four readings, and two expressions, and that’s it”).
He has praise for many others, including Clark Gable (not bright but “terribly nice”) and Carole Lombard (“I adored her”). Although he appeared memorably in movies such as “The Third Man” and “Touch of Evil,” Welles considers his own acting an amateur pursuit.
Welles’ taste in movies can be surprising. Among his many dislikes are the American films of Alfred Hitchcock, whom he considered burdened by egotism and laziness. Of “Rear Window,” one of Hitchcock’s most popular films, he says, “Everything is stupid about it.” Worse, he adds, is “Vertigo.” Fortunately for his sake, Welles did not live to see “Vertigo” replace “Citizen Kane” last year as the best film ever in the decennial Sight & Sound poll of film critics.
In a lean and lively essay, Biskind captures the essence of Welles and the conundrum posed by his artistic ups and downs. The star of this engaging book, as he was in nearly everything he did, remains Welles. Like Falstaff, a character he loved to play, he is witty and vain — and, in the end, a tragic figure.
Douglass K. Daniel is the author of “Tough as Nails: The Life and Films of Richard Brooks” (University of Wisconsin Press).