I’m pleased to be able to report that My Lunches With Orson: Conversations Between Henry Jaglom And Orson Welles (edited and with an introduction by Peter Biskind, Metropolitan Books) is a substantively better book than most of its positive notices would have you believe. To be honest, when I first heard of the thing, my immediate expectation/desire was mixed with at least a mild dread. There was this sense of a potential funhouse mirror version of This Is Orson Welles, with Henry Jaglom standing in for Peter Bogdanovich and Peter Biskind standing in for Jonathan Rosenbaum, and everything those substitutions could possible imply besides. Once first word about the ostensibly scandalous contents of the book started coming out, the dread heightened. Orson Welles, pathetically washed-up Hollywood one-time wunderkind, talks smack about the great Olivier, and so on. Imagine that. If this was gonna be the book, then the book was an ignoble enterprise, I decided.
Well, the book is not an ignoble enterprise, and I can’t even be snarky and add that it’s not for lack of trying. But it’s not entirely unproblematic, either, as we’ll get to further down. I should have had a little more faith in its subject and main speaker. The value of My Lunches With Orson lies in about 250 pages worth of the company of an artistic genius who was also a first-rate mind (as we know these qualities are not always mutually exclusive) and the sheer conversational, philosophical, polemical and emotional pleasure such a thing organically affords. There is poignancy here, too, afforded by Welles’ frequently querulous personality and his roundabout ways of acknowledging his flaw.
While Bogdanovich, in his more formal interviews of the ‘70s, was not content to have Welles the cineaste, but persistently tried to formulate his idol as a cinephile, to often hilarious effect (see the exchanges with respect to Mizoguchi in This Is Orson Welles), Jaglom, taping his lunches with Welles in the early ‘80s after the latter’s falling out with Bogdanovich, played the eager audience and potential co-conspirator. And Jaglom WAS a good audience, although some might fall over in their chairs at the extent to which he was a seemingly willfully ignorant one; e.g., “Now [Carole] Lombard could not have been very bright.” Now THERE’S a real “WTF” moment (I like to imagine my friend the Self-Styled Siren heading for the fainting couch), but friend Welles merely responds “Very bright,” and elaborates, delightfully. This is right before he lays the conspiracy theory stuff about Lombard’s plane crash death on Jaglom. This assertion got played up big time in the gossip columns—well about as big time as anything concerning Orson Welles can get played up in the gossip columns nowadays—but, as with so much in the book that’s supposed to put Welles in a nasty or kooky light, it’s something that plays better in context. First off there’s the not unpalpable sense of Welles playing up to Jaglom with I-know-where-the-bodies-are-buried lore. And he also adds, “Now I cannot swear it’s true. I’ve been told this by people who swear it’s true, who I happen to believe.” There’s an entire county of nuance in Welles’ saying “cannot” rather than “can’t;” the “who I happen to believe” is a nice touch as well. It’s the voice, the changes of register he puts into his dishy improvisations, which provide the real and deep fun, not the data itself.
Similarly, there’s a peculiar, tetchy evenhandedness and even sometimes affection in Welles' putdowns. The stuff on Olivier, which is dropped throughout, is peculiarly fascinating. He thinks the actor/director kind of a dolt (one can almost hear him rolling his eyes as he recalls the opening of Olivier’s Hamlet, in which Olivier, narrating, calls the play “the story of a man who could not make up his mind”) and also a mean, malicious person, but throughout his rages there’s also a more than tacit acknowledgement of Olivier as a peer and prodigious talent. While he hasn’t much time for Sternberg, he schools Jaglom well in Stroheim, but he’s largely kinder to performers than other directors. Even after irritatingly dismissing Richard Burton, there’s a sense in his rancor that he’s talking about a recalcitrant relative. He dumps pages of resentment on Charlie Chaplin, and proclaims Keaton Chaplin’s filmmaking and comedic superior, but still insists, rightly, on Chaplin’s genius. The only performer for whom he expresses unambivalent contempt is Woody Allen, and there largely on a matter of personal taste. What Steven Soderbergh terms “rude” in his blurb on the book’s back jacket is bracing, to be sure. But the mitigating circumstances pertaining to the rudeness make something like a window into the great man’s psyche. And Chapters 21 and 22, in which Welles wrestles with the idea of directing what would many years later become Tim Robbins’ highly questionable film The Cradle Will Rock, and then gives Jaglom some script notes for what would become Jaglom’s film Always, provide mini-seminars on two very different but ultimately not unrelated aspects of filmmaking, and show a true master not at work, but unselfconsciously brandishing the brilliance that made his work what it was. Remarkable.
Which isn’t to say that Welles doesn’t trip himself up, wisdom-wise, from time to time. Speaking of a never-to-be-realized film of King Lear, Welles ponders shooting at a studio near an airport: “It’s a great location, and you can make multiple deals, but only if you’re making a silent picture. Or else dub it afterwards which, if you do that with Shakespeare, it comes off as totally fake. You simply cannot do it.” Except the maestro had already done it, with the sublime Chimes at Midnight. At other places, it’s both exhilarating and sad to see him mulling over ideas for casting films that will never be made. Regretfully rejecting Robert De Niro for a role as an up-and-coming politico in The Big Brass Ring, he says, “My candidate is a fellow who’s got to carry Kansas. I really don’t see De Niro carrying Kansas.” True then, true now.
Because as he’s offering up these scintillating and edifying transcribed bits, editor Biskind is also constructing a narrative, a narrative of Orson Welles never making that final film. It’s heartbreaking when Jaglom has to bear the news that their last best hope for a Brass Ring lead, Jack Nicholson, is for all intents and purposes turning Welles down. And in Chapter 26, the penultimate one, Welles and Jaglom are joined at their Ma Maison table by an HBO executive named Susan Smith, whom Welles perversely cuts dead the second he perceives something—disinterest? disrespect? ignorance?—in her that he disapproves of, and can’t let go of. It’s a hair-raising exchange and for Welles lovers it will bring to mind the scorpion-and-the-frog parable Welles relates in Mr. Arkadin/Confidential Report, a bit that Andrew Sarris applied to an analysis of Welles’ career as far back as 1968, in his The American Cinema.
Given the evidence of the book, that 1955 is not much dreamt of in Biskind’s philosophy. If you are already conversant with Welles’ life and career, you may find much of my former colleague’s introduction to the conversations troubling, or funny. Writing of the immediate post-Ambersons period, Biskind states, “With his directing career sidelined, he found work as an actor, performing in pictures such as Journey into Fear (1943), Jane Eyre (1943), and The Stranger (1946), much of which he unofficially directed.” Rumors/accounts of Welles’ directorial participation in Fear and Eyre are common, but as it happens The Stranger is actually signed by Welles, so, you know. This is the sort of error that can arguably arise out of a copy glitch, but I still cringed when I read Biskind credit his editor for “refus[ing] to let anything slip by her.” The assertion that Lady From Shanghai was “mutilated by the studio” is contradicted by Welles himself in interviews with Bogdanovich, in which the director’s sole complaint is that Columbia head Harry Cohn slapped an unsatisfactory music score on the picture [UPDATE: this bit of gainsaying on my part is destroyed below in comments, and I apologize here again for shooting from the hip with respect to this issue]; the provenance of a Jean-Luc Godard citation is muffed; and so on. Biskind’s description of Janet Leigh’s character in Touch of Evil is so peculiar and hostile that one would suspect that Peter is going through a bout of [Jeff] Wellsian late-middle-age women issues, but I’m confident the passage is just misguided editorial assertion, which is also applied to Elia Kazan in the book’s “Partial Cast Of Characters” appendix. (It’s telling, by the way, that even as he expresses disapprobation of Kazan, Welles still revers to him by his old nickname “Gadg.”) Biskind’s explanation of the auteur theory as propagated by Sarris is reductive to the point of inaccuracy, and it almost seems as if he expects Welles’ and Jaglom’s dismissive remarks about Howard Hawks to compel Hawk’s admirers to pack up their tents and go home. As the guy in the commercials used to say, “Sorry, Charlie.” I was also uncomfortable with a passage late in the book in which Welles and Jaglom discuss their former friend Bogdanovich’s book about Dorothy Stratten; their views may be useful or pertinent in the context of an actual scholarly work, but as reproduced here, there’s a distinct whiff of, for lack of a better term, scab-picking.
And the mirror-image of This Is Orson Welles idea holds, for better or worse, through all of that. The Bogdanovich/Rosenbaum endeavor was lively with a scholarly bent and execution. Jaglom/Biskind volume is conceived and executed as a pop culture entertainment; it doesn’t even have an index. It is nonetheless an essential and, yes, largely enjoyable addition to one’s Welles library. I look forward to reading…oh wait...