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,
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.
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.’ ”