Chowing Down on My Lunches with Orson

my-lunches-with-orsonFrom 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: 

The Trial (1962) Movie Review

Touch Of Evil Movie Review

Touch of Evil (1958): Movie Review: Second Review by guest Blogger Aled DeLarge

  • Wayne P.

    Interesting article as usual, Irv! I seem to remember a story about Orson Welles having his first of many battles with studio age production heads during the filming of The Magnificent Ambersons in 1942. This was probably his next project after Citizen Kane and started a pattern that would repeat over the years for the talented actor and director, as you thoroughly note. Leaving aside Kane, whose impact is somewhat reduced, in my opinion, with its seeming to lay at the hands of a boys sleds destruction the main seeds that would germinate into future character flaws (was this just one of the many reasons W.R. Hearst railed against its release so hard or perhaps the main one?); but,TMA was a hard film for me to decipher the intended meaning of and I mean that in a good way! Like Stanley Kubrick, OW left his movies open to the viewers interpretation a lot of times and thats never a bad thing really, is it? I did have some problems, even after repeated viewings, as seems required most often with both these eccentrically talented filmakers, with Mr. Arkadin and its ultimate direction. Like The Third Man, Touch of Evil was also another ‘deep” movie and both were excellent and at least critically acclaimed if not at the box office. One big difference to distinguish SK was that he started slowly and picked up steam after he made his name taking over Spartacus, at Kirk Douglas’ behest, when he got the banking of a major studio player MGM, for the huge undertakings to come with Lolita, Dr. Strangelove and, of course, 2001 ;). OW never got that chance possibly because of the propensities he would show in those lunches all those years later…and thats a shame. After reading this piece, I am going to want to see Jess Franco’s 1992 Don Quixote tribute to the Boy Wonder…unlike SK, he started, with his aptly named Mercury Theater Players, like a rocket in 1938 with the brilliant radio farce, turned almost real alien invasion scare,The War of the Worlds…how many ‘fake’ radio broadcasts, even based on a sci-fi novel, inspire 2 major motion pictures years apart? Now, lets go contemplate more ‘what couldve beens’ if SK had ever finished Napolean!

    • GeorgeDAllen

      Wayne P, it’s your lucky day, ’cause the Franco cut of Welles’ famously unfinished “Don Quixote” is actually still in print:
      I own it. If you’re a Welles fan (check) and/or a Don Quixote nut (double check), it’s worth owning–but have no illusions, it’s a titanic mess. Nothing at all like the rediscovered “Othello,” which actually works as a coherent if choppy movie from start to finish. But it’s definitely still an object of genuine fascination.

      • Wayne P.

        Thanks, George, but after your reliable mini-review, will waive DQ and go with Othello for sure! A quick shout-out for the pic…its nice to put a face, lo these past year(s), with the name…of course, if I had a vote it would be based on what saves me from further excessive blog-post wordiness and so would combo you and Irv into (you guessed it;) Georv!

    • nicolas

      One of the major problems Hearst had with Citizen Kane, and it was a real good one, was that the portrayal of Susan Alexander with her poor opera singing was seen as his mistress Marion Davies, who had been a good comedy actress, and he found that insulting. Welles conceded many years later, that the real Davies was a far better person than the character of Susan, but also said that Kane was far better than Hearst. I feel, that in a weird way, when Citizen Kane was voted by Sight and Sound as the greatest film ever made from the poll from 62 to 2002, it really damaged Welles as a film maker. He had been making films that got released, eight of them before the accolades given in 62. However, I think the poor reception given his Chimes At Midnight, 1966, in the US really hurt him, and I think was partially responsible for not getting film projects completed. His film the Deep, he never completed, but was done as a film with Sam Neal and a very young and unknown Nicole Kidman.

  • nicolas

    One of Welles problems I think, and many people I have talked to have thought so, was that he was bi-polar. I think that in his life there is lots of evidence in that. Also, as many have said who worked with him later, he was very difficult. there is a lousy Belgium film I saw, some think it is good that he was in, and the people involved say how difficult he was. The funny thing about that film is, that when he is not in the scenes of the film, the film is a lot better, but suffers I think from a very weak leading man. Also, while he presented himself to be the “classic liberal”, some of his behaviors towards other people less fortunate than him, where not always very nice. But I have noticed that sometimes to be the case. Please note, that I am not anit-Welles, I love Citizen Kane, Lady From Shanghai, and love him in Third Man. I have a lot of books about him in my house, and was considering recently buying the book mentioned in this article.

  • Bill Proctor

    Two roles that best show cased his talent were cameos. The first was the hell fire and
    brimstone preacher at the beginning of Moby Dick. The other was General Dreedle
    in Catch 22, which was a mirror image of his contankerous self.