Friday, October 24, 2014

The Homesman, By Glendon Swarthout




One of the most successful western novels of the latter part of the last century was The Shootist (1975), by Glendon Swarthout (1918-1992).  This fine novel was later made into an even better John Wayne film of the same name in 1976, which would prove to be not only Wayne’s last western, but his last film, as well.  It was a fitting coda to a career in the saddle.

Needless to say, it was with some excitement that I found his book The Homesman (1988) at my local bookshop.  It was, however, a significant disappointment.

The setup is wonderful:  during a crippling winter, three women living hardscrabble pioneer lives go insane.  The opening chapter includes a graphic moment when one of these unfortunates murders her new-born baby by dropping it into the outhouse pit.  The book struggles to recover its grounding after this brutal opening.

It is decided that the three women need to be taken back east to a religious institution that deals with unbalanced women.  Their husbands – a fairly brutish lot – abrogate their responsibilities, so someone else must escort these women through dangerous Indian country.  But who?

Enter Mary Bee Cuddy, an ex-teacher, spinster and independent woman.  She volunteers for this perilous mission, but realizes that she cannot do it alone.  Fortunately, she saves from lynching George Briggs, a sidewinder and general hard-case who is getting his neck stretched for claim jumping.  Saving his life, she makes a bargain with him to take the deranged women back east.

Of course, they meet every expected plot complication: storms, Indians, rampaging cattlemen and dwindling supplies.

The Homesman won both the Western Writers of America’s Spur Award and the Western Heritage Wrangler Award, and I sure had high hopes.  However, The Homesman is a failure in almost every regard.  Though it may sound as high-concept as Little House on the Prairie Goes to Hell, it’s never quite that good.

First, Mary Bee Cuddy never really comes alive – she is simply a walking cliché.  Imagine the wonderful Marjorie Main (1890-1975) in buckskin, and all the character development you need is already in your head.  It is almost as if Swarthout was merely notching things on the standard checklist for salty western women: homely?  Check.  Brassy and tough?  Check.  Spinster and ex-teacher?  Check and check.  Worse yet, and I will spoil this for you to save reading the book, Cuddy hangs herself midway through the novel after Briggs rejects her attempts to seduce him.  This is a plot point that comes completely from left field, and once Swarthout kills his point-of-view character, what little there was to savor is gone. 

Briggs, of course, is a western lowlife according to the standard template: bad man with inherent decency.  He is never believable for an instant. 

Swarthout commits his greatest sin by leaving the three, poor madwomen nothing more than ciphers.  Here is an opportunity for any novelist to really shine … but aside from glazed stares and greatly internalized suffering, there is nothing there.  
Perhaps your correspondent is sadly warped, but slogging through this turgid potboiler, I could not help but wait for the funny part.  It never came.

And then – it dawned on me.  In other hands, what a delicious comedy this would be!  Keep almost the same set up, but think Bob Hope as Briggs, and someone like Ethel Merman as Mary Bee Cuddy.  Throw in Phyllis Diller, Martha Raye and Zasu Pitts as the madwomen, and you have something.  At least it would be more interesting (if certainly not more enjoyable) than The Homesman.

My paperback copy says that this is Soon To Be a Major Motion Picture With Tommy Lee Jones.  It would seem that the story of my life is that I’m waiting for Bob Hope and instead I get Tommy Lee Jones.  I hope that he may be able to raise a few laughs, but we are not optimistic….

Thursday, October 23, 2014

People’s Symphony Concerts Return!


If New York is the classical music capital of the world, then perhaps the best bargain in the world for music lovers is the series of concerts presented by People’s Symphony.

The Peoples’ Symphony Concerts series was founded in 1900 by the conductor Franz Arens to bring the world’s finest music to students and workers for minimum prices.  That winter, more than 7,000 people jammed into the old hall at Cooper Union to hear Arens, the son of an immigrant farmer, conduct his series of five Peoples' Symphony Concerts.  Subscriptions for the five concerts ranged from $.25 to $1.25 and single tickets went for as little as $0.10 each. 

Arens himself started out a poor student in Europe who had been too broke to attend many concerts.  When Arens returned to New York, he was determined to find a way to bring music to students, teachers, workers, and others unable to pay normal ticket prices.  Since those early years, hundreds of thousands of Peoples' Symphony Concerts audience members have heard the world's foremost concert artists and ensembles at the lowest admission prices of any major series in the country.

Your correspondent has been going for nearly 25 years, and has heard such world class masters as Richard Goode, Garrick Ohlsson, and Marc-Andre Hamelin.  There are three concert series, two taking place on Saturday evenings at the spacious (and newly-renovated) theater at Washington Irving High School in Gramercy Park, and one on Sunday afternoons at Town Hall in midtown Manhattan.

The season opened last week with a magnificent performance by the Musicians From Marlboro, the touring extension of the Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont.  This group is comprised of exceptional young professional musicians together with seasoned artists in varied chamber music programs. Each program is built around a work performed in a previous summer that Artistic Directors Richard Goode and Mitsuko Uchida and their colleagues felt was exceptional and should be shared with a wider audience. The resulting ensembles offer audiences the chance to both discover seldom-heard masterworks and enjoy fresh interpretations of chamber music favorites.

The concert opened with a relatively new work by Svervánszky, the Trio for Flute, Violin and Viola.  This piece was filled with a rich, folkloric, Middle European flavor, and was played with great brio by the troup.

The was followed by the Sonata for flute, viola and harp, L. 137 by Debussy.  This was, perhaps, my favorite piece of the evening – offering a lush, yet limpid, interval of pure aural pleasure.

The evening progressed with Officium breve in memoriam Andreæ Szervánszky, Op. 28 by Kurtág which, frankly, went in one ear and out the other.  However, as with most contemporary pieces, mileage varies depending on user.

The concert ended with a gripping rendition of Beethoven’s String Quintet in C Major, Op. 29, which was greeted by the crowd with long, loud and lusty applause.

Artists for the evening included David McCarroll, violin; Nikki Chooi, violin; Kim Kashkashian, viola; Wenting Kang, viola; Karen Ouzounian, cello; Marina Piccinini, flute; and, Sivan Magen, harp.  These are exceptionally talented young people.

Many of my readers support the New York Metropolitan Opera, WQXR and/or Tanglewood, but few seem to know this wonderful reasoure for people who are serious about music. 

There are still tickets available for this season; visit http://pscny.org  or call (212) 586-4680 for more information.  

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Bambi, A Life in the Woods, by Felix Salten

Every now and then, successful films make the novels upon which they were based superfluous.  Most everyone has seen some version or another of such classic novels as Pride and Prejudice or David Copperfield, but very few crack the original texts. 

When Walt Disney released Bambi in 1942, it seemed to erase all memory of its wonderful source-material, the novel Bambi, A Life in the Woods, written by Felix Salten (1869-1945) in 1923.  This is a great shame because in nearly every way imaginable, the novel is infinitely superior to the admittedly classic film.

The Disney film greatly softens the material, providing Bambi with amusing sidekicks and expanding the action with comic set-pieces.  Though there is an emotionally wrenching scene where Bambi’s mother is shot by hunters, it is not overall a somber or lachrymose film.  Indeed, it is one of the most limpid and lovely Disney films of the era.

This is very different from Salten’s novel (originally translated into English by Whittaker Chambers).  There, Bambi is born into a world of largely absent fathers, continual threat from hunters, fierce competition for food and resources, and the bitter reality of death. 

The lessons of Bambi are that life is often hard, and frequently entire populations become the sport of the casually cruel and powerful.  (As Salten himself would learn under the Nazis.)  Bambi particularly in his romantic maturation, often behaves badly himself, as if Salten is saying that we are born into a world where we are hardwired to be selfish and destructive.

While reading classic children’s novels, it is easy to think of their adult counterparts.  (For example, Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows is the Jane Austin novel of the field).  The prose of Bambi, with all its simple, declarative force and echoes of an incantation, made me feel as if I were reading an anthropomorphic book of the Old Testament

It is also a remarkable meditation on mortality and loss.  While the film focuses on the death of Bambi’s mother, the novel’s most eloquent rumination on death comes between two leaves, anxiously discussing their upcoming fall.  Here’s a brief excerpt:

“Can it be true,” said the first leaf, “can it really be true, that others come to take our places when we’re gone and after them still others, and more and more?”

“It is really true,” whispered the second leaf. “We can’t’ even begin to imagine it, it’s beyond our powers.”

“It makes me very sad,” added the first leaf.

They were silent a while.  Then the first leaf said quietly to herself.  “Why must we fall?”

The second leaf asked, “What happens to us when we have fallen?”

“We sink down…”

“What is under us?”

The first leaf answered, “I don’t know, some say one thing, some another, but nobody knows.”

The second leaf asked, “Do we feel anything, do we know anything about ourselves when we’re down there?”

The first leaf answered, “Who knows?  Not one of all those down there has ever come back to tell us about it.”

Salten was a very prolific author, publishing about one book a year on average.  He is believed to be the anonymous author of the erotic novel Josephine Mutzenbacher (1906), which is about a Viennese prostitute.  Clearly a man of versatile literary achievements.

Like many Jewish artists, he fell into Hitler’s crosshairs; Der Fuhrer banned Salten’s books in 1936, and the author fled to Switzerland two years later.  He would die there.

Salter sold the film rights to Bambi to director Sidney Franklin for a mere $1,000; Franklin then sold the rights to Disney.  As is often the case with Disney and copyright, they would argue in the 1950s that the book was in the public domain and attempt to retain greater profits.  (Disney evocation of copyright always struck your correspondent as risible, considering they have made millions of dollars adapting public domain fairy tales.  Perhaps the scariest sequence of any Disney film happens in business meetings away from the camera.)

Adults who consider a “children’s novel” with trepidation should have no fear.  No less than John Galsworthy wrote that: Bambi is a delicious book.  Delicious not only for children but for those who are no longer so fortunate.  For delicacy of perception and essential truth I hardly know any story of animals that can stand beside this life study of a forest deer. 

We cannot argue.

Tomorrow -- the return of People’s Symphony Concerts!




Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Books of Wonder Hosts William Joyce



Bill Joyce in the Books of Wonder Gallery (and an N.C. Wyeth Behind Him)

During our recent (too long) hiatus, readers have asked where we have been keeping ourselves.

One of the many answers is Books of Wonder, an oasis for bibliophiles, art collectors, and people – both young and old – interested in children’s literature.  For your correspondent, who has been dutifully tracing the history of children’s literature from its Victorian Golden Age to its kaleidoscopic present, it is paradise.  For those who love this often neglected realm of literary and artistic endeavor, or who wish to share wondrous creations with the young, there is simply no better place. 

Books of Wonder has been around since 1980 – it’s an independent store owned and operated by Peter Glassman, who has managed to create a space with something for everybody.

Our recent trips have left us marveling at original illustrations by N. C. Wyeth (1882-1945) and Wizard of Oz illustrators John R. Neill (1877-1943) and W.W. Denslow (1856-1915), as well as original Disney animation cells, in the back gallery.  Also there are glorious first editions of the Oz books, along with facsimile reproductions of Andrew Lang’s (1844-1912) fairy books, as well as brand new books by today’s leading lights in the field.

The staff is always friendly and extremely knowledgeable; there is rarely a Christmas shopping trip when I do not come home laden with treasures, many often for myself.  With the holidays approaching, you cannot have a better resource.

Another great plus for the shop is the frequent appearance of the world’s finest illustrators and writers of today’s children’s books.  Recent guests have included such luminaries as Oliver Jeffers and Garth Nix.  This past weekend, Books of Wonder played host to the doyen of the field, William Joyce.

It is a tribute to his considerable artistry that an equal number of adults attend his public appearances as do children, and his recent appearance was no exception.  He spoke to a capacity crowd, regaling them with stories of his adventures at the Academy Awards (where he won an Oscar, along with Brandon Oldenburg, for his short, The Fantastic Flying Books of Morris Lessmore); his adventures in school; the creation of his company, Moonbot; his efforts to launch young artists and animators into the field; and, his love of story-telling and images.

Joyce had the crowd gather closer as he showed his recent animated short, the Numberlys, chatted with aspiring artists and writers, and even provided a sneak-preview of his next animated short, an adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado.  This was a stunning piece of work – daringly conceived in its overall design and dramatically streamlined to deliver maximum impact.  Be on the lookout for this, as it will rank as the finest animated adaptation of Poe, ever.

Joyce was also in town for a screening of The Numberlys at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, where it was included as part of its permanent collection, and to talk about his new book, A Bean, A Stalk and a Boy Named Jack, which he created with Kenny Callicutt.  (Watch these pages for a review next week.)  And next year, the 2015 holiday season will also see the new installments in his Guardians of Childhood series.  It would seem as if this protean talent is entering a new era of growth and creativity.

William Joyce has been a consistently energetic and enjoyable artist since his debut on the scene more than 20 years ago.  His love of fun and dedication to his craft has provided a much-needed joyous note in these days of “dark and gritty.”  The world of William Joyce is one where everyone is happy, and is a tonic (if not a benediction) young and old alike.  He is, as an artist and a man, someone who matters.





Tomorrow – Bambi. 

Friday, August 8, 2014

Repulsive Ads and Ridiculous Covers


We here at The Jade Sphinx are often … well …, shocked by what we see plastered on bus and train walls, and in our bookstalls.  Movie and television show ads are often much too grotesque to actually see the light of day, and I am unsure why we as a people need to be bombarded by ugliness.

Mind, this is not Mrs. Grundy speaking.  My objections are not moral; morals are out of the scope of our ongoing discussion.  We deal in aesthetics, and as aesthetes we must rebel against revolting images.

Take the ad above, which I photographed on the side of a bus traveling across Central Park South.  It is for a film or television show called The Strain – but the strain is entirely on any innocent confronted with this repellent and gruesome image.  I ask with candor – are the people responsible for this ad criminally insane?  Reprehensively irresponsible?  Morally bankrupt?  Knaves and fools?

Then, upon closer examination, we see that the ‘brains’ behind The Strain is “auteur” Guillermo Del Toro, who has made an entire career of ugly and unsettling images.  At least he has the charm of consistency.

Then, we are greeted by the new cover for the Penguin Modern Classics edition of Roald Dahl’s children’s classic, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  Isn’t this something you want to buy for your child?


The cover has already created something of a furor, with many customers (and potential customers) wondering why a great children’s classic has been tarted up as a cheap publicity stunt.  Penguin has already been doing damage control, pointing out that this is the "adult" edition, and have released a statement on their blog:  the Modern Classics cover looks at the children at the centre of the story, and highlights the way Roald Dahl's writing manages to embrace both the light and the dark aspects of life.

We here at The Jade Sphinx have been in public relations long enough to detect the heady, sweet odor of bullshit when we smell it.  I’ve read Charlie both as a child and an adult, and I’m not sure that “dark” is the adjective I would use.  But “dark” has become a marketing buzzword, bandied about usually when marketers want adults to buy children’s material without feeling any guilt.  It is this ridiculous argument that has resulted in various frauds, illiterates and numbskulls wanting to call everything from The Wizard of Oz to Superman “dark.”  I am waiting for the “dark” version of Beatle Baily….

Do we really need to see these things?  To marketers really have to pander to our basest selves?  And isn’t it time that we ask, don’t we deserve better?



Thursday, August 7, 2014

Alarms and Discursions, by G. K. Chesterton (1910)




Over the past many months we have been reading quite a bit of that brilliant author, Gilbert Keith Chesterton, (1874 – 1936), creator of the delightful Father Brown detective stories.  Though little-remembered today, Chesterton was one of the outstanding critics and thinkers of his age.  There are many reasons to admire GKC, but perhaps the most sensible is that he had never lost his childlike sense of wonder.  It was his innocence and clarity, mixed with a prodigious erudition, that resulted in his gargantuan influence as a writer and thinker.  He is simply the finest critic of Dickens and Stevenson I have ever read, and his take on Shakespeare is enthralling.  To read Chesterton is to see these writers anew, as if some profound truth were staring us in the face and it took a little boy to point it out.

The Falstaffian figure of GKC was familiar to all literate people in the US and UK for decades.  Tall and fat, he wore a broad-brimmed slouch hat and cape, and often carried a sword cane.  Of such figures legends are made, and Chesterton, the man himself, influenced writers who converted the easily recognizable figure into a string of fictional characters.  (His influence on detective fiction is vast – and the man himself served as the model for the fictional Dr. Gideon Fell, who appeared in mysteries by John Dickson Carr.)  The most contemporary figure similar to GKC would be Orson Welles; but though brilliant, Welles did not have his deep and profound depth of learning, his purity of soul, nor his sense of fun.  Welles was old before his time; GKC was forever young.

Chesterton earned his bread and cheese as a journalist, writing for the London Daily News.  His 1910 book Alarms and Discursions features dozens of columns on a variety of different subjects.  Paging through this book, the reader would learn his thoughts on everything from democracy, to cheese to the failure of the English upper classes.   Anyone interested in learning more about this fascinating man should look at his newspaper columns while also reading his many novels and books of sustained criticism.

Here are some quotes:  When a man says that democracy is false because most people are stupid, there are several courses which the philosopher may pursue. The most obvious is to hit him smartly and with precision on the exact tip of the nose. But if you have scruples (moral or physical) about this course, you may proceed to employ Reason, which in this case has all the savage solidity of a blow with the fist. It is stupid to say that "most people" are stupid. It is like saying "most people are tall," when it is obvious that "tall" can only mean taller than most people. It is absurd to denounce the majority of mankind as below the average of mankind.

Isn’t that grand?  And here is GKC writing in 1910 something that is even more pertinent to 2014:  In a popular magazine there is one of the usual articles about criminology; about whether wicked men could be made good if their heads were taken to pieces. As by far the wickedest men I know of are much too rich and powerful ever to submit to the process, the speculation leaves me cold. I always notice with pain, however, a curious absence of the portraits of living millionaires from such galleries of awful examples; most of the portraits in which we are called upon to remark the line of the nose or the curve of the forehead appear to be the portraits of ordinary sad men, who stole because they were hungry or killed because they were in a rage. The physical peculiarity seems to vary infinitely; sometimes it is the remarkable square head, sometimes it is the unmistakable round head; sometimes the learned draw attention to the abnormal development, sometimes to the striking deficiency of the back of the head. I have tried to discover what is the invariable factor, the one permanent mark of the scientific criminal type; after exhaustive classification I have to come to the conclusion that it consists in being poor.

GKC had a remarkably Christian point of view – and by that, I don’t necessarily mean he wore his Catholicism on his sleeve.  He was a Christian humanist – someone who, seemingly against all odds, genuinely loved people.  This is a rare quality among those who live in the mind, but GKC was a rare man. 

The charm of a book like Alarms and Discursions is that it can be read through in one sitting, or can be dipped into almost indiscriminately.  There is not a page without gold of some kind, and, in addition, even his most interesting observations are presented with a puckish insouciance.  Read this, and savor, especially, the last line:  Roughly speaking, there are three kinds of people in this world. The first kind of people are People; they are the largest and probably the most valuable class. We owe to this class the chairs we sit down on, the clothes we wear, the houses we live in; and, indeed (when we come to think of it), we probably belong to this class ourselves. The second class may be called for convenience the Poets; they are often a nuisance to their families, but, generally speaking, a blessing to mankind. The third class is that of the Professors or Intellectuals; sometimes described as the thoughtful people; and these are a blight and a desolation both to their families and also to mankind. Of course, the classification sometimes overlaps, like all classification. Some good people are almost poets and some bad poets are almost professors. But the division follows lines of real psychological cleavage. I do not offer it lightly. It has been the fruit of more than eighteen minutes of earnest reflection and research.

Alarms and Discursions is available at Project Gutenberg, and the invaluable www.manybooks.net.  It makes for wonderful reading.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

My Lunches With Orson: Conversations Between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles, Edited and With an Introduction by Peter Biskind




The outsized genius of Orson Welles (1915-1985) has become the stuff of legend.  Child prodigy, stage star and radio star and Oscar-winning film-maker at a stage in life when most young men are just learning to navigate the subway system on their own, Welles was both lionized and victimized by his designation as a “Boy Genius.”  The tragedy of most any prodigy is a suitable second act, and that was a dilemma beyond even Welles’ capabilities.  For what is a prodigy but someone who simply gets there first? 

And got there first, he did.  Welles went from star and celebrated director to television huckster and buffoon in record time.  It is hard for the generation who grew up watching Welles as pitchman for Paul Masson wines to realize that here was one of the most celebrated artists and intellects of his generation.  From Hamlet to Falstaff in just a few short years, Welles started isolating himself from the disappointments in life with layers of fat the way grit acquires layers of calcium carbonate to become pearls.

Later in life, Welles became the darling of the independent filmmaker set, who saw a kindred spirit in the maverick who so often bit the Hollywood hand that fed him.  And in this orbit of satellites was director Henry Jaglom (born 1938), who enticed a truculent Welles to appear in his film, A Safe Place (1971).  It was the start of a long friendship that would find Jaglom acting as friend, benefactor, baby-sitter and sometime agent to the fading genius.

Welles and Jaglom would meet regularly for lunch at Ma Maison, where the older auteur would hold court and entertain Jaglom with bits of wisdom gained in the artistic trenches, and with anecdotes from his amazing career.  Also in attendance was Welles’ toy poodle Kiki, who Welles used as another prop.

Jaglom taped their conversations from 1983 to 1985, when Welles died of a heart attack with a typewriter on his lap while writing a script.  He kept the tapes in a shoe box for years, until film historian Peter Biskind asked to have them transcribed.  The result is the book My Lunches With Orson: Conversations Between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles, and a tasty tidbit it is, too.

The array of interests displayed here by Welles is captivating – it would be hard indeed to find better table talk.  Gifted with an actor’s memory, he could quote long passages from the classics; look at art in a new and refreshing way; and think through aesthetic problems with a speed and lucidity that was simply amazing.

He was also full of balloon juice.  That no one seemed to question Welles on many of his anecdotes is, frankly, a demonstration that hero worship is a very dangerous thing indeed.  For example, Welles tells Jaglom how he and Lionel and Ethel Barrymore once scoured town, looking for missing brother John Barrymore.  They would, Welles says, eventually find him in a whorehouse.  Great story, but, somehow… I’m not quite sure that Lionel and Ethel, both in their 60s at that time, would engage a 20-something youth in the search, no matter what a wunderkind he was.  Also amusing (though not included in this book), is Welles’ story that he understood the novel Dracula so well because he had tea with Bram Stoker as a boy – no small feat, considering Stoker died three years before Welles was born.

In the first line quoted below we catch Welles in another howler: that he spoke with Katherine Hepburn while in make-up for the film Bill of Divorcement while he was in makeup for Citizen Kane – the films were made nine years apart. 

Somehow, though, none of it seems to matter; I am reminded of what James Russell Lowell wrote of author Edgar Allan Poe:

There comes Poe, with his raven, like Barnaby Rudge,
Three-fifths of him genius and two-fifths sheer fudge,

The genius is real, but so is the fudge.  Here is a sample of Wellesian table-talk from My Lunches With Orson:


H.J.: By the way, I was just reading ­Garson Kanin’s book on Tracy and Hepburn.

O.W.: Hoo boy! I sat in makeup during Kane, and she was next to me, being made up for A Bill of Divorcement. And she was describing how she was fucked by Howard Hughes, using all the four-letter words. Most people didn’t talk like that then. Except Carole Lombard. It came naturally to her. She couldn’t talk any other way. With Katie, though, who spoke in this high-class, girl’s-finishing-school accent, you thought that she had made a decision to talk that way. Grace Kelly also slept around, in the dressing room when nobody was looking, but she never said anything. Katie was different. She was a free woman when she was young. Very much what the girls are now. I was never a fan of Tracy.

H.J.: You didn’t find him charming as hell?

O.W.: No, no charm. To me, he was just a hateful, hateful man. I think Katie just doesn’t like me. She doesn’t like the way I look. Don’t you know there’s such a thing as physical dislike? Europeans know that about other Europeans. If I don’t like somebody’s looks, I don’t like them. See, I believe that it is not true that different races and nations are alike. I’m ­profoundly convinced that that’s a total lie. I think people are different. Sardinians, for example, have stubby little fingers. ­Bosnians have short necks.

H.J.: Orson, that’s ridiculous.

O.W.: Measure them. Measure them! I never could stand looking at Bette Davis, so I don’t want to see her act, you see. I hate Woody Allen physically, I dislike that kind of man.

H.J.: I’ve never understood why. Have you met him?

O.W.: Oh, yes. I can hardly bear to talk to him. He has the Chaplin disease. That particular combination of arrogance and timidity sets my teeth on edge.

H.J.: He’s not arrogant; he’s shy.

O.W.: He is arrogant. Like all people with timid personalities, his arrogance is ­unlimited. Anybody who speaks quietly and shrivels up in company is unbelievably ­arrogant. He acts shy, but he’s not. He’s scared. He hates himself, and he loves himself, a very tense situation. It’s people like me who have to carry on and pretend to be modest. To me, it’s the most embarrassing thing in the world—a man who presents himself at his worst to get laughs, in order to free himself from his hang-ups. Everything he does on the screen is therapeutic.

Waiter: Gentlemen, bon appétit. How is everything?

O.W.: We’re talking, thank you. [Waiter leaves.] I wish they wouldn’t do that. If I ever own a restaurant, I will never allow the waiters to ask if the diners like their dishes. Particularly when they’re talking.

H.J.: What is wrong with your food?

O.W.: It’s not what I had yesterday.

H.J.: You want to try to explain this to the waiter?

O.W.: No, no, no. One complaint per table is all, unless you want them to spit in the food. Let me tell you a story about George Jean Nathan, America’s great drama critic. Nathan was the tightest man who ever lived, even tighter than Charles Chaplin. And he lived for 40 years in the Hotel Royalton, which is across from the Algonquin. He never tipped anybody in the Royalton, not even when they brought the breakfast, and not at Christmastime. After about ten years of never getting tipped, the room-service waiter peed slightly in his tea. Everybody in New York knew it but him. The waiters hurried across the street and told the waiters at Algonquin, who were waiting to see when it would finally dawn on him what he was drinking! And as the years went by, there got to be more and more urine and less and less tea. And it was a great pleasure for us in the theater to look at a leading critic and know that he was full of piss. And I, with my own ears, heard him at the ‘21’ complaining, saying, “Why can’t I get tea here as good as it is at the Royalton?” That’s when I fell on the floor, you know.

H.J.: They keep writing in the papers that, ever since Wolfgang Puck left, this place has gone downhill.

O.W.: I don’t like Wolfgang. He’s a little shit. I think he’s a terrible little man.

H.J.: Warren Beatty was just saying that TV has changed movies, because for most of us, once you’re in a movie theater, you commit, whether you like it or not. You want to see what they’ve done, while at home …

O.W.: I’m the opposite. It’s a question of age. In my real movie-going days, which were the thirties, you didn’t stand in line. You strolled down the street and sallied into the theater at any hour of the day or night. Like you’d go in to have a drink at a bar. Every movie theater was partially empty. We never asked what time the movie began. We used to go after we went to the theater.

H.J.: You didn’t feel you had to see a movie from the start?

O.W.: No. We’d leave when we’d realize, “This is where we came in.” Everybody said that. I loved movies for that reason. They didn’t cost that much, so if you didn’t like one, it was, “Let’s do something else. Go to another movie.” And that’s what made it habitual to such an extent that walking out of a movie was what for people now is like turning off the television set.

H.J.: Were things really better in the old days?

O.W.: It’s terrible for older people to say that, because they always say things were better, but they really were. What was so good about it was just the quantity of movies that were made. If you were Darryl Zanuck, and you were producing 80 moving pictures under your direct supervision, how much attention could you pay to any one picture? Somebody was gonna slip something in that’s good.

I got along well with even the worst of the old moguls. They were all easier to deal with than these college-­educated, market-conscious people. I never really suffered from the “bad old boys.” I’ve only suffered from lawyers and agents. Wasn’t it Norman Mailer who said that the great new art form in ­Hollywood is the deal? Everybody’s energy goes into the deal. Forty-five years I have been doing business with agents, as a performer and a director. As a producer, sitting on the other side of the desk, I have never once had an agent go out on a limb for his client and fight for him. I’ve never heard one say, “No, just a minute! This is the actor you should use.” They will always say, “You don’t like him? I’ve got somebody else.” They’re totally spineless.

H.J.: In the old days, all those big deals were made on a handshake. With no contract. And they were all honored.

O.W.: In common with all Protestant or Jewish cultures, America was developed on the idea that your word is your bond. Otherwise, the frontier could never have been opened, ’cause it was lawless. A man’s word had to mean something. My theory is that everything went to hell with Prohibition, because it was a law nobody could obey. So the whole concept of the rule of law was corrupted at that moment. Then came Vietnam, and marijuana, which clearly shouldn’t be illegal, but is. If you go to jail for ten years in Texas when you light up a joint, who are you? You’re a lawbreaker. It’s just like Prohibition was. When people accept breaking the law as normal, something happens to the whole society. You see?

Richard Burton comes to the table.

Richard Burton: Orson, how good to see you. It’s been too long. You’re looking fine. Elizabeth is with me. She so much wants to meet you. Can I bring her over to your table?

O.W.: No. As you can see, I’m in the middle of my lunch. I’ll stop by on my way out.

Burton exits.

H.J.: Orson, you’re behaving like an asshole. That was so rude.

O.W.: Do not kick me under the table. I hate that. I don’t need you as my ­conscience, my Jewish Jiminy Cricket. Especially do not kick my boots. You know they protect my ankles. Richard Burton had great talent. 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. And I wasn’t rude. To quote Carl Laemmle, “I gave him an evasive answer. I told him, ‘Go fuck yourself.’