Monday, July 22, 2013

From the Café's Bookshelf: "My Lunches With Orson"

The most addictive film book in recent memory, My Lunches With Orson portrays Orson Welles at his unvarnished best during his twilight years. From the cinematic splendor of Citizen Kane to his Paul Masson wine commercials, Welles was always an enigma--a brilliant filmmaker, theater producer, and actor who appeared in his share of dreadful movies (e.g., 1967's Casino Royale) and even considered a Love Boat appearance. This new book, edited by Peter Biskind, consists of highlights of recorded conversations between Welles and independent filmmaker Henry Jaglom between 1978 and 1985. Talking off the record, Welles provides rare insights into his own works, amusing anecdotes, frank assessments of other films and performers, and the reasons why some of his projects never came to fruition.

In his pithy introduction, Biskind describes how Welles and Jaglom met while the latter was writing and directing his first film, 1971's A Safe Place. After learning from mutual friend Peter Bogdanovich that Welles was in NYC, Jaglom tried to convinced his filmmaking idol to appear in his debut film. Jaglom piqued Welles' interest by offering him a role as "The Magician" (Welles was fascinated with magic in his youth). After several questions, Welles asked his most important one: "Can I wear a cape?" When Jaglom responded yes, Welles agreed to appear in the young man's film.

The two men reconnected in 1978 when Jaglom ran into Welles at Ma Maison, a French restaurant in West Hollywood. Welles and Jaglom met almost weekly for lunch for the next seven years, until Welles' death in 1985. With Welles' permission, Jaglom began recording the conversations in 1983 and those discussions are the basis for My Lunches With Orson. The conversations are not 100% Welles; editor Biskind notes that he added or subtracted phrases "for the purpose of making the conversations more concise and intelligible" and that he altered some of Welles' comments "with an eye to furnishing context."

Readers who expect a series of in-depth interviews focusing on Welles' films, like Francois Truffaut's Hitchcock, will be disappointed. These are literally "lunch conversations" that jump from topic to topic--it just happens that one of the men talking ranks with the greatest filmmakers in cinema history. A running thread throughout the conversations is Welles' inability to gain financing for a new film. By this point in his career, his friend Jaglom had also become his de facto agent.

With Jaglom's encouragement, Welles wrote a screenplay for a political drama called The Big Brass Ring. He even secured $8 million in financing with a guarantee of total control of the film. There was just one caveat: He had to get a major star--from a list of "six or seven A-list actors" to agree to play the lead. Unfortunately, Welles was rebuffed, for various reasons, by Robert Redford, Clint Eastwood, Burt Reynolds (!), and even his friends Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson. (Interestingly, The Big Brass Ring was eventually made in 1999 by another director, with a revised screenplay, and starring William Hurt.)

Although the conversations portray Welles as a frustrated artist, he rarely sounds bitter. That doesn't mean that he holds back on his assessments of other films and performers. His unadorned comments are surely the most entertaining aspects of My Lunches With Orson. Here's a sample:

Joan Fontaine: "She's just a plain old bad actor. She's got four line readings, and two expressions, and that's it."

John Ford: "I recently saw what I've always been told was Jack [Ford's] greatest movie, and it's terrible. The Searchers. He made many very bad pictures."

Jean Renoir's The Grand Illusion: "Probably one of the three or four best ever. I burst into tears at Grand Illusion every time."

W.C. Fields: "Nobody who didn't see him in the theater will ever know how great W.C. Fields was. He was a shadow of himself in films. A shadow! A tenth as funny as he was on stage."

John Huston: "His first picture, The Maltese Falcon, was totally borrowed from Kane. It was made the next year, you know."

The Third Man: "It's a hell of a picture."

Rear Window: "Everything is stupid about it. Complete insensitivity to what a story of voyeurism could be. I'll tell you what is astonishing. To discover than Jimmy Stewart can be a bad actor. But really bad."

In addition to his introduction, editor Peter Biskind includes a descriptive list of Welles' unfinished projects (e.g., King Lear), brief biographical sketches of selected people, and an epilogue written by Jaglom. There are a handful of photographs of the two filmmakers. Unfortunately, there is not an index, which is perplexing.

My Lunches With Orson is a must-read for any film buff. You may not agree with what Welles has to say. In fact, sometimes you may think that he's just being contrary for the fun of it. But there is no denying that these conversations are highly entertaining and never dull. In short, this book is the next best thing to being one of Orson's guests at Ma Maison.

Metropolitan Books provided a review copy of this book.


  1. He was a character! Some of the comments about other performers and directors sound a tad bitter, but he was such a frustrated man that I guess he had to take his anger out on someone.

  2. I can't wait to read this! One thing I'm really curious about is the context of him calling Laurence Olivier "stupid," as they appeared to be quite good friends in their younger years. Can you elaborate on that bit at all?

  3. This sounds like a very interesting read! Like you, I think it is odd that this work does not contain an index because finding quotes or people without it would be quite a challenge. I think it is important to note, also, that the dialogues were conducted in the last three years of Welles' life and that age may have added "colour" to some comments. Thanks for your insightful profile of this work, Rick!

  4. My, but that man could talk!

    For an interesting companion piece to this book you should enjoy a chapter in Bill Persky's recently published "My Life is a Situation Comedy" in which he discusses working with Welles on the 1972 TV movie of "The Man Who Came to Dinner". I'm sure you'll enjoy the rest of the book as well.

  5. I thought his observations of W.C. Fields were interesting. This sounds like an extremely juicy read -- one of those books where you don't care if even half of it is true.