From 1983 to 1985, Orson Welles and indie filmmaker Henry Jaglom had lunch at Los Angeles’ Ma Maison restaurant on a weekly basis. During the course of these meals, the two directors discussed politics, people, history and, of course, Hollywood.
The increasingly cantankerous Welles—his acting and directing career waning with each successive year, and his health failing—played Don Quixote to Jagloms’s Sancho Panza between bites of chicken salad, slurps of soup, and regular berating of the wait staff by Welles.
The relationship between the two men actually developed into something more than a friendship. Jaglom—who met Welles after he recruited him to play a magician in his trippy 1971 debut film A Safe Place—became an agent for the former enfant terrible of American cinema, attempting to get him commercial work and trying to put together financing deals for Welles’ myriad of stalled projects.
Jaglom, who had a hand in editing Easy Rider and has since directed and starred in close to 20 films, taped the conversations at Welles’ behest. Transcripts of the tapes were in turn handed over to Peter Biskind, the author of the acclaimed Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘N’ roll Generation Saved Hollywood, who put the discussions into book form.
The result is My Lunches with Orson Welles, a deliciously cranky outsider’s inside look at Hollywood, filled with terrific stories, accented by conjecture and pronouncements by Welles which may or may not be true. The intelligence and ego of the Citizen Kane creator shines through in every volley between himself and his wide-eyed attentive lunch date.
But, sadly, so does the great director’s desperation. Straddled with financial woes and a lack of work—because of the wariness of former and potential employers to deal with his blustery opinions and arrogant demeanor—Welles was reduced to considering offers for guest spots on “The Love Boat” and pleading with Jaglom to get him hired for a commercial—any commercial.
The multi-talented Welles found himself declared unbankable by the studios at an early age, so his bitterness had been long simmering, and seems to bubble over the surface in these tete-a-tetes.
It is, of course, the acrimony that makes My Lunches with Orson Welles so enjoyable. He rarely had a kind word for anybody.
Welles took particularly nasty and persistent jabs at fellow Shakespeare acolyte Laurence Oliver. John Houseman, his former partner in the Mercury Theater Players, was a prime target for Welles-ian diatribes which were fuelled by Houseman’s popularity and ability to get steady work as a pitchman. Along with gossipy revelations of Olivier and Houseman’s love lives (according to Welles, Sir Larry was quite a ladies’ man; Houseman a homosexual), Welles said Olivier was “stupid” and viewed Houseman as a rogue with a phony British accent who sold out after he won his Academy Award (for The Paper Chase).
There was also no love lost between Welles and several others he knew and worked with. Welles took target practice at Peter Bogdanovich, one of his biggest cheerleaders; Charlton Heston, with whom Welles made the classic Touch of Evil ; Elia Kazan, who “named names” during the Hollywood blacklist; Josef von Sternberg (“never made a good picture”); and many others.
Throughout the book, Welles made some wild statements that knocked Jaglom for a loop—and have the same impact on the reader.
For example, he claimed that Carole Lombard’s fatal plane crash was the work of Nazi sharpshooters…in Nevada! Then there’s the “fact” that Welles wrote Charles Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux without credit, or that Peter Sellers wouldn’t act with him in Casino Royale because he was jealous that Sellers’ then-wife Britt Ekland liked him. According to Orson, writer Graham Greene had little to do with the film The Third Man. The filmmaker revealed that Welles almost ran for the Senate in 1952. And on and on.
For film fans, this makes for great movie biz chatter. But there’s a sadness that permeates My Lunches with Orson Welles throughout.
Despite Welles’ passion for magic, he was unable to pull off one last trick, even with the efforts of the ever-accommodating Jaglom. He never managed to raise the money to follow through with any number of the projects he had simmering in his later years. There was his King Lear, shot in close-up, mostly in black and white; The Dreamers, an adaptation of Isak Dinesen writings; The Other Side of the Wind, a satire of Hollywood, whose rights were tied up with the Shah of Iran’s brother-in-law; and his long-stalled Don Quixote picture, began back in 1956.
Ironically, two dream projects did get made—years after he died: Cradle will Rock, centering on Welles’ staging of a leftist musical in the 1930s, was directed by Tim Robbins and issued in theaters in 1999.
The Big Brass Ring, a political drama Welles wrote with partner Oja Kodar, was released in 1990 with William Hurt in the lead.
Throughout My Lunches with Orson, Welles and Jaglom discussed the picture, and the choices for the key role of a Missouri gubernatorial candidate which may have helped secure financing.
Jack Nicholson was interested, but wouldn’t reduce his multi-million dollar salary.
Welles deemed Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino too ethnic.
Jack Lemmon was too old.
Even with an “abracadabra” from the great director, The Big Brass Ring remained sadly unattainable to him.
(For more information: My Lunches with Orson: Conversations between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles)
More movie articles on Orson Welles:
Touch of Evil (1958): Movie Review: Second Review by guest Blogger Aled DeLarge