Friday, July 26, 2013

Book Review: My Lunches With Orson—Highly Recommended

Upon reflection, the next time someone launches another of those internet memes asking who from Hollywood history, living or dead, you'd like to have lunch with, I'm going to answer "Orson Welles." Because if there are two things Orson Welles did better than anyone, aside from making such classic films as Citizen Kane and The Lady From Shanghai, it was (1) eating and (2) talking. I imagine the food would be good, the conversation (on Welles's end, at least) even better, and if in the process, you gained a little insight into one of film history's most mercurial figures, well then the hefty bill at the end would be well worth paying.

Back in the early-1980s, director Henry Jaglom sat down to just such a series of lunches, recorded them, then after letting the tapes gather dust in a shoe box for three decades, allowed Peter Biskind, author of Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, to transcribe and edit them for public consumption.

The resulting book, My Lunches with Orson: Conversations between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles, available from Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt and Company, is just as lively and insightful as, and a great deal funnier than, any lunch I ever imagined having with Welles—or any other celebrity for that matter.

The relationship between Jaglom and Welles was one between friends and equals—Jaglom had somehow persuaded Welles to star in his directorial effort, then became Welles's trusted go-between with the various moneyed interests who dangled promises of funding for the aging director's film projects—and for years they lunched weekly at Ma Maison, Wolfgang Puck's hideaway restaurant in West Hollywood. The recordings were Welles's idea, inspired by similar conversations Jaglom had taped with his own father, and with no plans for their future use, and thus no sense of history's judgment hanging over his head, Welles is as close to unguarded as he ever was.

Neither adversarial, as between a journalist and his quarry, or worshipful, as between an acolyte and his idol, the conversations are freewheeling and completely unvarnished. Political correctness ("Sardinians have stubby little fingers") is set aside, civility ("I gave him an evasive answer. I told him, 'Go f#ck yourself.'") is forgotten, and good taste ("Buchwald drove it up Ronnie's ass and broke it off") isn't even honored in the breach.

Jaglom was the perfect lunch companion for Welles. Welles was a raconteur, a provocateur, a poseur and sometimes an out-and-out liar, and it would have necessarily taken a man with a quick mind, opinions of his own, unafraid to say, "Orson, that's ridiculous," when he was indeed being ridiculous (which was often), and able to draw out the great man on a broad range of topics, to serve as the host of these repasts at Ma Maison.

The lunches are delicious, lively and hilarious, what I would imagine the Algonquin roundtable was like, with Welles simultaneously playing the parts of Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley and George Kaufmann, tossing out one liners like hand grenades while eating food enough for six. It's wonderful stuff. I wound up neglecting everything—the dog, dinner, this blog—just to read another chapter.

Indeed, if I wrote as quickly as I read, you'd have had this review the day after the book arrived in the mail.

These lunches are also filling, as good lunches should be, featuring lengthy discussions of Irving Thalberg ("Satan"), Erich von Stroheim ("genius"), David O. Selznick ("pious old fart"), Carole Lombard ("very bright"), Rita Hayworth ("magnificent"), Joan Fontaine ("a plain old bad actor"), Laurence Olivier ("very—I mean, seriously—stupid"), Charles Chaplin ("wonderful—but not funny"), and many others.

The greatest insights, though, are into Welles himself, although certainly not the ones he intended. Throughout the book, he and Jaglom are in discussions with the French to finance Dreamers, discussions with the Italians to finance Cradle Will Rock, discussions with Hollywood A-listers to star in The Big Brass Ring, and discussions with everybody to finance King Lear, ultimately with no success on any front. Welles complains frequently about his reputation for being difficult, insisting it's the propaganda of enemies with an axe to grind, and that, really, he was just trying to help those poor slobs sell their terrible wine when he insisted on rewriting their ad copy, and who doesn't hate the tedium of editing film, and yes, he was eating four steaks and seven baked potatoes for dinner at Cannes, but he only sniffed the pork tenderloin.

When over one of these lunches Welles pitches a project to Susan Smith of HBO, it becomes obvious why his career went to hell in a handbasket—he may have been a genius, but he was also ill-tempered, insecure, and surprisingly bashful to boot. One imagined look on her part and a single wrong word and he winds up chasing her out of the restaurant even as she's begging him to do a deal for the cable network.

It's no wonder that when Welles died, he left nineteen unfinished projects, and hadn't completed a feature-length film in twelve years.

The question you always have to ask yourself when reading anything Welles ever said is how much of it is real and how much of it is a put-on (to shock, delight or deflect his questioner). In the end, I'm not sure it matters because to a great degree, the pose was the man. But if anyone ever got close to revealing in a series of conversations the flighty bundle of brilliant insecurities that were apparently dancing around inside Welles's over-sized carcass, it was Jaglom.

At one point, Welles discusses the concert pianist, Arthur Rubenstein, and his description could serve as his own epitaph: "He was the greatest cocksman of the ... twentieth century. The greatest charmer, linguist, socialite, raconteur. ... 'I am too lazy to practice ... I play clinkers all the time [but] I play it better with the clinkers.' [He] walked through life as though it was one big party."

One big party, or a series of very funny lunches.

P.S. Don't know your Orson Welles movies as well as you'd like? Click here for some suggestions from the Monkey.

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