Friday, October 10, 2014

Table Talk

Orson Welles (1915-1985) remains a puzzling figure in the history of cinema. He looms over American filmmaking thanks to his acknowledged masterpiece Citizen Kane and yet retains a reputation as a “might-have-been.” This is surely unfair. It is true that he spent years of preparation on numerous grand projects that never got off the ground (King Lear was the last of these), but he did complete an enviable body of work as director and actor/narrator: The Stranger, Othello, Touch of Evil, Chimes at Midnight, F for Fake, among others. I omit The Magnificent Ambersons as it was recut by the studio, to his fury, to have a happy ending.  It is also true, though, that his movies, including Citizen Kane, were not commercial in their own day. Sometimes they weren’t even well received critically until years had passed. Reviews for Chimes at Midnight, now regarded by many as his best work, in 1965 were sniffy. This undercut his financing, which explains all the unfinished projects. He was so chronically short of money that he appeared in Paul Masson wine commercials and acted in dreadful films such as Butterfly (a Pia Zadora vehicle) and was happy for the work.

Orson was a first class raconteur, as those old enough to have seen him on TV talk shows recall. Those interviews often made me wonder what he would have been like in more unguarded moments. Now we know. In the 1970s Welles befriended the younger director Henry Jaglom. Welles' very last screen appearance would be in the quasi-documentary Someone to Love, Jaglom’s inquiry into modern love and why it doesn’t last. From 1983 to 1985 Jaglom recorded their lunch conversations – at Welles’ suggestion according to Jaglom but with the stipulation that the tape recorder be hidden so he could ignore it successfully. Excerpts are collected in My Lunches with Orson, now in paperback.

Ignore the recorder Welles did. The dialogue certainly reads as though Orson doesn’t feel someone outside the table is listening. Jaglom seems more self-conscious, objecting (for the record?) to some of Orson’s casually un-PC remarks. Orson spills dirt on everyone from Charles Laughton to Charles Chaplin to Carole Lombard to Katherine Hepburn to his personal friend FDR – and on himself for cheating on Rita Hayworth. Despite his solidly leftist credentials, Welles has kind words for British fascist politician Oswald Mosley, not for his politics but for his friendliness as a host. While discussing John Wayne, he annoys the very partisan Jaglom by saying of right-wingers that, except for their politics, “They’re usually nicer people than left-wingers.” He does speak about his work amid all the personal chatter, too, but that is not the reason to read this book. The reason is to experience pulling up a seat to a table with Orson and friends – including Jack Lemmon on one occasion. During one conversation, though, Richard Burton walked over and asked to bring Elizabeth Taylor to the table. “No,” Orson said, “as you can see I’m in the middle of my lunch.” After Burton retreated Jaglom objected, “Orson you’re behaving like an asshole.” Orson answered, “He’s ruined his great gifts. He’s become a joke with a celebrity wife. Now he just works for money, does the worst shit.” Jaglom refrained from noting the jobs Welles took just for the money. There is something fascinating about witnessing the iconic Welles being a very human jerk while still displaying flashes of brilliance.

This shouldn’t be the first introduction one has to Orson Welles (other than through his movies), but the book nonetheless is hard to put down. It also is a warning – as if Richard Nixon’s weren’t enough – not to record what you don’t want public or shared with posterity.  With the spread of technologies such as smartphones and Google Glass we may not have a choice much longer. Whether these will increase our inhibitions (Jaglom?) or cause us to shed them a la Welles remains to be seen.

Orson paying the bills


  1. Who would cheat on Rita Hayworth? I think Welles got cranky with age as many of us do. The documentary, Jodorowsky's Dune, also sheds a bit of light on Welles in his later years, but only through his eyes. I was unaware of the book of interviews, I enjoy that sort of thing, so I'll have to look for it. I also was unaware of Falstaff or Chimes at Midnight, which I found on YT, so I'll check into it as well. Citizen Kane is surely a classic as is The Third Man, at least for me anyway.

  2. Fair question about Rita. The answer, according to Orson, is someone dating the obscure starlet Marilyn Monroe. He was great in the Third Man. Though he didn't direct it, Orson mentions at the table that he wrote his own lines about the cuckoo clock that so perfectly define his character in it I'm sure you're right about getting crankier. In his last film appearance he sounds as though he is advocating slavery, but as a long-time political egalitarian he is not: he is saying that a cost of gender equality may be more failed relationships, but he isn't saying the cost shouldn't be paid.

  3. He really was a fascinating guy, and he made some really amazing films. I still haven't seen "The Chimes at Midnight" but it sounds intriguing. I did manage to see "The Trial" a couple years ago - Welles takes on Kafka. It was a trip that was for sure. I also saw a film called "Confidential Report" which had a lot of interesting elements, but just didn't seem to gel. Sadly I'll always remember him as the voice of the planet eating... um planet in "Transformers: The Movie".

  4. I liked The Trial too -- Tony Perkins was an odd casting choice, but it worked.

    F for Fake is worth a look. It is on DVD though it is a bit pricey. His take on famous frauds (including himself -- he faked his early resume) is amusing and raises good questions about art and also about personal lies. Is a good forgery not art?

  5. ...and now I'm tempted to see Transformers: the Movie.