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Joseph Cotten‘s adage that, “No one has ever engaged in a dull conversation with Orson Welles” is mightily supported by two unexpected and—to Welles devotees—enthralling new volumes of pure talk, My Lunches With Orson: Conversations Between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles, and Orson Welles and Roger Hill: A Friendship in Three Acts. The full range of Welles’s conversational brilliance, from his eloquent expression of artistic and philosophical ideas to his catty low blows about fellow actors and those who had done him wrong, is to be found in these well edited transcriptions. The more elevated exchanges are to be found in the Welles/Hill meeting of minds, which are cleverly presented in the form of a three-act play, while the more down-and-dirty stuff is principally contained in the wide-ranging Welles/Jaglom talks, which were recorded over years of lunches at Ma Maison.
Todd Tarbox, the grandson of Roger Hill, Welles’ teacher and mentor at the celebrated Todd School during the orphaned boy’s vital adolescence, states in his introduction that Welles had an IQ of 185, and it is difficult to think of anyone in our contemporary world of arts and letters who could match Welles’s mastery of so many realms of expression—theater, film, radio, acting, writing, oratory, magic—and deep knowledge of politics, literature, music and history. Much of this took root and blossomed during his five years at the eminent and progressive Todd School for Boys in Woodstock, Illinois, where, under the guidance of Hill, 20 years his senior, the prodigy took part in many theatrical productions and co-edited the successful Everybody’s Shakespeare series.
Above all, what is so important and–for those of us who strongly connected with the man and his work during his lifetime—moving about Orson Welles and Roger Hill is that, for the first time, I felt I was hearing the true, unadulterated voice of Orson Welles. Consummate actor that he was, he had many voices for many occasions and the Jaglom lunches seem to have provided good opportunities to vent and kvetch. But to his foster father Hill, Welles had nothing to prove, nothing to sell, nothing to gain or lose. Theirs was a relationship of lifelong love, amity and mutual respect, and coursing through their talks is a quality of friendship and generosity of spirit rare in this life. As the conversations move inexorably toward the end—on the night before he is to die, Welles tells Hill, “I’m feeling very mortal these days”–one feels the curtain slowly coming down on a profoundly felt comedy-drama one wishes had several more acts to go.
Appearing 30 years after the fact, the two books had simultaneous conception periods. By mutual consent, Hill began recording conversations with his old student in 1982, mostly by long-distance telephone and occasionally in person, as an aide to both men in writing their memoirs. Jaglom began taping his lunches with Welles the following year, purportedly at the older man’s request, with the proviso that the microphone remain hidden in Jaglom’s briefcase. The surreptitious nature of the recordings has led some people, led by Jaglom’s detractors, to allege that Welles didn’t know his pal was taping their candid talks and that he felt betrayed when he accidentally found out, but this rumor is never even mentioned in editor Peter Biskind‘s lengthy introduction.
On consideration, the stealth recording theory now seems particularly unlikely, due both to Welles’s simultaneous desire to put down reminiscences with Hill and to the probability that, if Jaglom had had ulterior motives behind his regular get-togethers with his hero, he surely would have started taping them closer to when they began their lunching tradition, in 1978.
Relatively abstemious in that neither man drank at that point and the larger of the two was trying to obey his doctors and lose weight, the Welles/Jaglom repasts are loaded with hilarious digressions and old showbiz tales related by Welles with hugely articulate relish, rude brush-offs to would-be intruders at the table (Richard Burton and Zsa Zsa Gabor were among the victims), what sometimes seem read as pejorative remarks but that always contain a certain truth, unlikely opinions from a lifelong progressive and FDR confidant (“I really loved John Wayne,” and “I never had any trouble with extreme right-wingers. I’ve always found them tremendously likeable in every respect, except their politics. They’re usually nicer than left-wingers,” and “We underrated Eisenhower. We’ve just got to admit that was a great eight years, you know.”) and some outright vitriol toward Laurence Olivier (“very—I mean, seriously—stupid”) and his former theatrical partner John Houseman, whose late-career success compared to Welles’s own struggles got under his skin like nothing else. Even Wolfgang Puck, who launched his extraordinary career as the head chef at Ma Maison and whose creations the old man must have enjoyed, is on the receiving end of Wellesian low blows (“A self-promoting little shit.”).
Backdropping the conversations in both books, however, are Welles’s ongoing struggles to find financing for the many films he had begun but never finished (The Other Side of the Wind, Don Quixote, The Magic Show) and even more for the projects he yearned to do in his advancing years (The Big Brass Ring, The Cradle Will Rock, The Dreamers and, seemingly most of all, King Lear). Aside from being a lunch companion, Jaglom, who had known Welles since hiring him as an actor for his first film, A Safe Place, in 1971, served as a go-between with potential financiers as well as actors and other figures in the New Hollywood. Sadly, the younger generation treated Welles even worse than had the old studio system, where he at least got to direct six films. Time and again, we see the great director get his hopes up, especially in Europe, where France’s then-president Mitterand and his culture minister Jack Lang were big fans and promised to see to it that France, at least, would support this cultural treasure even if nobody else would, only to be let down every time.
The one Hollywood producer who extended a hand to Welles was Arnon Milchan, who agreed to finance an original Welles project, The Big Brass Ring, if the director could get one of the reigning leading men of the time to star as a Kennedy-esque political figure. To Welles and Jaglom, this seemed like a sure thing; who wouldn’t want the privilege of working under Orson? But, one by one, they all refused, often for good reasons—Warren Beatty was totally consumed by Reds, Robert Redford was now shaping his own career producing and directing, Clint Eastwood didn’t think audiences would buy him as a political liberal. Even Burt Reynolds said no. The last great hope was Jaglom’s great buddy Jack Nicholson, but he obstinately stuck to his unwavering high price tag of the time.
During the course of the lunches, the optimism and pessimism about launching a new productions ebb and flow: Welles bemoans how, unlike the infuriating Houseman, he can’t even get voice-over commercials work anymore; we learn of his difficulty in making his monthly nut and how he owes the IRS significant back taxes. But there are also interchanges that show how intimidating, even vicious he could be to “suits” and industry types he didn’t know, particularly during a lunch with an unnamed female HBO executive whom he virtually roasts alive before driving her from the table.
By contrast, in the conversations with Hill about new projects you can feel the artistic impulses driving him, the yearning, the desire, the thinking that’s gone into the them, making his frustration seem all the greater. At the same time, his sense of encroaching mortality is more palpable when shared with this man he’s known for nearly 60 years and who, in the end, would outlive his protege by five years.
Having intently followed and studied Welles’s career for years and having even brushed up against it—and him–a couple of times, as an extra in The Other Side of the Wind and Filming Othello, to this day I remain uncertain whether or not Welles, in his later years, would ever have accepted directing a film under what are considered normal circumstances, i.e., with a regular shooting schedule and a degree of scrutiny from a producer. He had not done this in Hollywood since Touch of Evil in 1958 and in Europe since The Trial and The Immortal Story in the 1960s; otherwise, he had only worked on his own clock, when and where he could afford it and marshal his troops, and finished only one feature that way, the essay film F for Fake.
The big debate among Welles scholars and biographers in later years was whether or not he had developed a fear of completion; anyone who voiced doubts about his ability or desire to finish his lingering projects was immediately consigned to the enemy camp. But this is a question that lingers even after reading these two enormously engaging and sympathetic books. Welles used to say that every film he ever made after his first one was unfavorably compared to Citizen Kane. Despite my undiminished enthusiasm for the man and his work, as the years went on, I eventually came to believe that he never finished his “comeback” 1970s project The Other Side of the Wind because he knew it wasn’t good enough, despite its brilliant script; even he, at one point, tells Jaglom that he considers it “dated.” Biskind also tellingly quotes Bert Schneider about how, during the same period, the wealthy maverick offered to produce a Welles film in which Nicholson was willing to star for free, “but when push came to shove, Orson just didn’t have to courage to work anymore. It didn’t matter what you put on his plate. He was frozen.” AndI know I’m not the only one to wonder why Jaglom, who, by the early 1980s, was turning out a film every year or two, couldn’t have applied the same financial arrangement he used for his own work to the projects of his dear friend.
Nevertheless, it’s clear, especially from the Hill conversations, that even at the end, Welles’s drive and desire to create never ebbed. He was still working hard, writing all the time; he died, in the middle of the night, with a portable typewriter on his lap. What Welles really needed was a patron in the classical Renaissance sense, one who would expect results and crack the whip at times but would generally leave the maestro alone to work his wonders. One might also speculate as to what might have been possible had the American independent film movement blossomed earlier, or if something like Kickstarter had existed during Welles’s lifetime. There will always be regret over the Welles films he never made and we’ll never see, as well as over the multi-volume autobiography he envisioned but never wrote. But with these two deep-dish volumes and Peter Bogdanovich‘s book-length career interview This Is Orson Welles, we do have 1200 pages of some of the best conversation by a film artist on the planet.
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