At one point in these conversations with the film director Henry Jaglom, Orson Welles recalls a Newsweek review of “Citizen Kane” in which the novelist John O’Hara wrote, “This is not only the best picture that has ever been made, it is the best picture that will ever be made.”
“What do you do after that?” Jaglom asks.
“Nothing,” Welles replies. “I should’ve retired.”
Considering the 44 years of his life that followed the release of “Kane,” Welles may have spoken the truth. His subsequent films were taken out of his control by studios, edited into blandness, released spottily or not at all, marred by production shut-downs while he went in search of funding to continue. He took roles in third-rate movies and made TV commercials, some of which turned him into an object of ridicule. Still, he asserts, “The only thing I can say for myself is that I do not have on my record a single clear-cut artistic failure.”
And Welles is poised to defend himself even when he admits a mistake: Later, he tells Jaglom that he has been misquoting O’Hara’s Newsweek review. He has just read a collection of reviews of “Citizen Kane,” he tells Jaglom, and discovered that what O’Hara wrote was “This is the best picture ever made, and Orson Welles is the best actor alive.” But, he insists, O’Hara “said the other to a lot of people at the Stork Club in my presence.”
As Peter Biskind notes in his introduction to “My Lunches With Orson,” a transcript of the conversations Welles and Jaglom had at a West Hollywood restaurant between 1983 and ’85 — that is, the last two years of Welles’s life, Welles has had a diagnosis of “cinematic ADD.” But the conversations in the book suggest that his attention was not so much deficient as misdirected.
Still on the hustle for funding, this time to make a film of “King Lear,” he woos sources in Italy and France, but when Jaglom arranges a meeting between Welles and an HBO executive who has a different project in mind for him, Welles is shockingly rude and hostile. Granted, in 1985 HBO was not the producing power that it has since become, but Welles had done revolutionary work on stage and in radio and movies. One senses a missed opportunity for him to do something novel in another medium, television.
The HBO executive is a woman, and there is a strong hint of misogyny in Welles’s treatment of her. Earlier, he has told Jaglom, “Women are another race. . . . You can only win by being the cool center of their being. . . . You can’t tell them the truth. You have to lie and play games.” His rudeness seems to be ingrained: When Richard Burton stops by his table to ask if he can bring Elizabeth Taylor over to meet him, Welles huffs, “No. As you can see, I’m in the middle of my lunch.”
Throughout these conversations Welles is obviously playing the grand curmudgeon, as if he’s crafted a character for himself in an imagined play, “The Man Who Came to Lunch.” (As the book’s title suggests, the pattern for these conversations is the dialogue between Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn in the film “My Dinner With Andre,” which was released in 1981.) He proclaims his dislike of Spencer Tracy, Bette Davis, Woody Allen and Marlon Brando. Laurence Olivier, he says, “is very — I mean seriously — stupid.” Humphrey Bogart “was a second-rate actor” who “never gave a good performance in his life.” Ingrid Bergman was “not an actress. Just barely able to get through a scene.” Neither Joan Fontaine “nor her sister Olivia de Havilland could act. I never understood their careers.”
Many will forgive the display of monstrous Wellesian ego in this book because he did, after all, give us “Citizen Kane,” which, starting in 1962, and continuing over the next four decades, topped the British magazine Sight and Sound’s decennial list of the greatest films of all time. But in 2012, headlines reported that “Kane” had dropped to second place, behind Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.” So the reader of the book is likely to hear a loud clang of irony when Welles denounces Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” as “one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen” and then, at Jaglom’s prompting, says that “Vertigo” is “worse.” (The Hitchcock films are not the only celebrated ones that Welles disses: Sternberg’s “The Blue Angel” is “schlock”; John Ford’s “The Searchers” — which was No. 7 on the 2012 Sight and Sound list — is “terrible”; he “hated” Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown.”)
There is a poignant moment in the last of the recorded conversations, when Welles says, “I regard posterity as vulgar as success. I don’t trust posterity. I don’t think what’s good is necessarily recognized in the long run.” It’s a telling insight from a man whom posterity has continued to scrutinize, debating whether he was a victim of the studio system or of his own character flaws. This book suggests that the grand tragic victim may have been the greatest role Welles created for himself.
Matthews is a writer and editor in Northern California.
MY LUNCHES WITH ORSON
Conversations Between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles
Edited by Peter Biskind
Metropolitan. 306 pp. $28