One day in 1983 Orson Welles was eating at Ma Maison when Richard Burton stopped by. “Orson,” he said, “how good to see you. It’s been too long. You’re looking fine. Elizabeth is with me. She so much wants to meet you. Can I bring her over to your table?” “No,” said Welles. “As you can see, I’m in the middle of my lunch.” Burton having slunk off, Welles’s dining companion, actor-director Henry Jaglom, wondered whether he mightn’t have been a little rude. Not at all, said Welles: “I gave him an evasive answer. I told him, ‘Go fuck yourself.’”
And there you have him. Welles spent the bulk of his life telling people to go fuck themselves. Alas, most of those insulted—producers, directors, assorted corporate honchos—were in a position to give Welles work. They rarely did. Late in life, Welles even picked fights with admen—by whom he was being paid ludicrously well for a few hours’ work in the voice-over booth. Yet read Jaglom’s My Lunches With Orson, and you’ll find him moaning about how “nobody will take me for a commercial” and how they seem to prefer his old enemy John Houseman “with his petulant, arrogant, unpleasant manner.” Tu quoque, Orson, tu quoque.
Welles, who once dismissed his masterpiece Citizen Kane as “dollar-book Freud,” was nothing if not a projector. Nobody who remembers the crash dive that was Richard Burton’s life—from the roaring majesty of his youthful Royal Shakespeare Company Hamlet to TV remakes of Brief Encounter—could argue with Welles’s suggestion that he “ruined his greatest gifts” and “just works for money.” But how was Welles’s career any different? Having rewritten film grammar and history with Kane, he spent the next four decades goading producers, abandoning projects, guesting in clunkers, and generally suffering from what Peter Biskind, in his fine introduction to Jaglom’s book, calls “cinematic ADD.”
However much you disapprove of the erratic hothead that was Welles the moviemaker, there is no way of not adoring the scabrous, self-mythologizing charmer that was Welles the conversationalist. Jaglom’s book, which consists of transcriptions of Wellesian table talk in the run-up to his death in 1985, is a nonstop litany of wit and wise counsel. Or it would be were it not for the insult and invective Welles rains incontinently—and hilariously—down on just about anyone connected with the picture business.
Actors are the breed most likely to get it in the neck—Marlon Brando literally so because his was like “a huge sausage, a shoe made of flesh.” Bette Davis was yet more deformed: “I could never stand looking at [her], so I don’t want to see her act.” Bogart could act, though, since according to Welles he was nothing like the characters he created on screen. Rather, he was “a coward” who would pick fights only “when he knew he was well covered by the busboys.”
But Welles’s scorn isn’t reserved only for movie stars. The 20th century’s hitherto undisputed masters of the stage take a beating, too. John Gielgud, says Welles, “used to play Shakespeare as though he were dictating it to his secretary.” Dictation implies understanding, though, and Larry Olivier didn’t even have that. He was “very—I mean seriously—stupid.” Then again, speech wouldn’t come easily to someone who found it “terribly hard ... to resist going down on himself.” Hmmm ... Was that a dagger he saw before him?
Rival directors get a mouthful too. John Ford aside (whose Stagecoach Welles once said he watched repeatedly while getting in training for Kane), they’re all no-talent blowhards. Lubitsch had no visual sense, von Sternberg “never made a good picture,” and Welles simply cannot conceive how the younger, Cahiers-influenced critics of the ’60s and ’70s could think Howard Hawks “number 1.”
The great virtue of this book is the proof it offers that a life lived at high-enough intensity can be an artwork itself.
Chief among those last was Peter Bogdanovich, a director who began as a movie historian, a lifelong Orson supporter, and the man who did so much to restore Welles’s reputation in the low days when he was reduced to advertising sherry and lager. It was Bogdanovich who curated the Museum of Modern Art’s Welles retrospective of 1961, (very convincingly) defended Welles against Pauline Kael’s lengthy attack on him in two successive issues of The New Yorker, and spent several years working with his hero on a similarly bracing collection of interviews (This Is Orson Welles, 1992). And what does he get for his efforts? Nothing but Bronx cheers for being a “pain in the neck” self-obsessive.
Nothing daunted by the mickey-taking, Bogdanovich tried to help his hero find work—though given Welles’s troublemaking with little success. Welles was the best self-saboteur in the business. Witness the moment here when HBO’s Susan Smith (a pseudonym) joins him and Jaglom to discuss a new project. Within seconds of her mentioning her project, Welles says he “wouldn’t be remotely interested,” and when she says she’d like to hear his ideas, he refuses because of her “dead look.” “I think you’re wrong,” she says, at which Welles explodes: “You’re wrong. You’re really wrong! Boy, are you wrong.” That sound you hear in the background is Jaglom’s forehead hitting the palm of his hand. My Lunches With Orson, one of the year’s best movie books, is his belated reward for putting up with all that wind and whining.
Welles once claimed that he preferred making a film to seeing the finished result. In other words, he preferred life over art. The great virtue of this book is the proof it offers that a life lived at high-enough intensity can be an artwork itself. I don’t believe that the forces of Hollywood capital prevented Welles from making more great movies. What prevented him was the movie going on in his head, the only movie he ever really wanted to see, the movie in which he was both hero and villain, comic and straight man, fall guy and romantic lead. At one point in the book he tells Jaglom about Arthur Rubinstein leaving the stage of the Royal Albert Hall to wild applause and saying, “They applauded just as loudly last Thursday, when I played well.” In living his life as he did, Orson Welles played well even when he played badly. He still deserves our applause.