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31 of 34 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Dazzler, June 7, 2013
This review is from: My Lunches with Orson: Conversations between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles (Hardcover)
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For years, actor/director Henry Jaglom hung out with film legend Orson Welles, not only having lunches, but hustling for him and his projects. With Welles's consent, Jaglom taped their conversations by means of a tape recorder hidden in Jaglom's bag.

Unlike filmmakers Hitchcock and Ford, for example, Welles was never able to parley his genius for making some of the best films to come out of Hollywood (or anywhere else) into a flourishing career. Early on, he got tagged by the screw-ups of others -- studio executives, jealous colleagues, government cultural bureaucrats in Europe, small-minded know-it-alls in general -- as a man who could never finish anything, despite considerable evidence to the contrary. The word on Welles, as well as his corporal image of self-indulgence, made it difficult and finally imossible to get financing for any project. At the time of his death, he had 19 scripts, many complete, a few not, including what might have been a great King Lear. It's definitely our loss, but there's always the next witless movie franchise (Fast and Furious XXI, for example) all too available to take up brain space. I never really understood why some billionaire wouldn't just give him 5 mil to make a film, even if the project turned to powder. It still would have been money better spent than on a giant party in the Bahamas catered by the trendiest celebrity chef and adorned with ice sculptures.

Unlike many who called Welles a friend, Jaglom actually went out of his way to be of practical service to Welles's career, shopping Welles's scripts and even casting him in Someone to Love, Welles's last film appearance. Why, especially when most people were more than willing to accept Welles as a talentless sprawl (Welles had passed "obese" decades before) of failure?

Jaglom doesn't tell us, but rather allows Welles to reveal himself as a fascinator of endless charm, a superb storyteller and raconteur, and a fellow with a boy's old-fashioned sense of adventure. "Larger than life" may be a cliche, but it fits Welles, even when you ignore his girth. Welles's personality dwarfed almost any other contemporary, recalling somebody like Dickens. As Welles himself showed in his brilliant F for Fake, he had a "fluid relationship" with facts, I suspect mainly to improve the story he told. The anecdotes, as he brings them out, instantly stick to your memory. I've been relaying to my poor wife one Welles story after another. They're so good, you want to tell *somebody*. That's the price she has to pay for living with me.

You'll learn about Joseph Cotten and Deanna Durbin, Irving Thalberg's tremendous influence on the "film factory" system and how it tended to crowd out the better directors, Laurence Olivier's stupefying narcissism, the reasons behind John Barrymore's drinking, the bat-dip crazy far right in Hollywood (Adolph Menjou, Hedda Hopper, formerly liberal Charlton Heston), and much more. There are affectionate portraits of Welles's friends and his love of good actors, especially the ones who helped him. One also finds frank considerations of his directing competitors. I expected to find the latter, not merely because of Welles's self-absorption, but because of his very individual sensibility. Nobody, after all, likes everything. Why should Welles?

To some extent, there's a bit of score-settling as well. Probably the three most influential Welles detractors, those responsible for the "self-indugent failure" myth -- Charles Higham, John Houseman, and Pauline Kael -- finally get solid pushback. I never liked Higham's book on Welles. It seemed both intellectually shoddy and badly written. Given what I know of its genesis -- Higham underpaid a bunch of research assistants and threw together their index cards -- Welles's antipathy didn't shock me. The book repeated long-debunked myths, went to hostile sources, and in general didn't engage with Welles's films themselves. About John Houseman, who owed his career to Welles, I never found much to admire. His acting seemed less like acting and more like an amateur "turn." To be fair, I didn't know any other part of his work. Here, he comes across as an Iago -- malice without sufficient reason, concealing the poison in the honey of "more in sorrow than in anger."

To me, the strongest anti-Wellesian is Pauline Kael -- I have to admit, my favorite film critic. Indeed, she turned me on to late Welles. I saw the wonderful Chimes at Midnight on her recommendation. Aside from her incredible smarts and great prose, she never gives you the sense that she cuts intellectual corners, like Higham does. Unlike Houseman, she doesn't trade in innuendo but sets out the facts as she knows them. The main charge she levels is that Welles didn't, as he claimed, write the script of Citizen Kane and that he reduced the writing credit of Herman J. Mankiewicz to co-writer. Kael contends that Mankiewicz was responsible for most of the script and should have gotten full credit, and she argued that the egotistic Welles tried to obscure Mankiewicz's contribution. Welles simply points to obvious facts. Mankiewicz received at least part writing credit, and Welles never hid his debt to Gregg Toland, indeed often referred to him as a co-director. So much for the raving egotist. Kael did the most damage with her claim that Welles tried to remove Mankiewicz's screenplay credit completely with a cash payment to the latter. Scholarship has since found evidence to support Welles's claim that he rewrote Mankiewicz's work, and it fits with Welles's practice in other films, even the ones in which he only acted.

Peter Birskind has done a great job putting the mess of conversation into readable, even entertaining form. The great feature of this book is that almost all of the stuff above comes in by the way and that a picture gradually builds up, almost by stealth. Mainly, you just enjoy being at the table with a figure so effervescent and Falstaffian.
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Comments

Tracked by 3 customers

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Showing 1-5 of 5 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jun 27, 2013 7:45:09 AM PDT
Don Reed says:
Congrats on a fine review.

I suggest adding the years of birth and death for Orson and the author (the latter MUST be deceased by now, no?), as well as a few dates (years are sufficient) in which key events occurred, in order to provide a historical context from which the tale can be expanded.

Many people reading this weren't born until after all of the above people had passed away. Unless they're film fans or historians, these names are probably new to them.

A nice project would be to set up a Google Images page and fill it with photographs of everyone in the book (with captions on the photos themselves IDing the person; eliminate the necessary to open and close each one). Entitled "My Lunches With Orson" (type that in and get that desired page immediately, instead of having to hack through the G.I. underbrush, photos of 4H fairs, etc.).

Providing faces for names would create a much easier way for readers to identify with Jaglom's protagonists.

Which reminds me - I should go and see if there's a photo of Pauline Kael on G.I. I can't recall if I've ever seen her face.

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 27, 2013 8:08:38 AM PDT
I'm of two minds about dates. On the one hand, I'm neither a film historian nor particularly a film buff, and *I've* heard of these people. On the other, I have very little idea of hip-hop or present-day pop and rock and consequently have little interest. So dates might be helpful.

As for a Google page, I have no idea how to do that.

Pauline Kael was, as some might say, "a plain woman," but fearsomely smart and blessed with a wicked sense of humor.

Posted on Oct 12, 2013 1:06:50 PM PDT
FAST AND FURIOUS got financing, but Orson Welles could not. What a world.

Posted on Oct 12, 2013 6:23:01 PM PDT
Don Reed says:
Hi, Steve. I didn't ignore your response. Somehow, I never got it. If JLR hadn't activated it with his comment, I'd still be in the dark.

Years ago, I was "D.P. Reed" on This Thing. W/o warning, Amazon then made me "Don Reed" (all previous reviews were now "locked" - no further edits permitted!). Meanwhile, having originally set this up under my wife's name, I've been loath to transfer the account into my name, seeing as how The Big A plays with the perfection of the 2013 NY Giants.

So as was remained as is. Which means responses go thru my wife's I-Launch Pad & then are transferred to this computer address. She also gets 100 junk emails a day - buy one stinking can of air wick in 1959 & you will hear from the distributor/retailer FOREVER. So she deletes a lot & in doing so, gets fatigued. I suspect she meant to send your message on & then accidentally hit "Delete."

Next: The Big A renames my account, "Mr. BushWick."

At any rate, you're wise not to rot your ears with various forms of "music," some of which are identical to The Last Song You Just Heard. When this parlays itself into a quarter century of repetition, 'tis pathetic.

Recommended, highly: "Vanity Will Get You Somewhere"... An Autobiography, Joseph Cotten 1905-1994]; Mercury House, Inc. (1987). I recommend Hollywood books once every ten years.

David Denby of New York Magazine wrote an ace article about PK (their personal relationship). I spent fifteen minutes trying to find it on NY Magazine's horrible (technically horrible) web site. No luck. Nor do I have it saved on my hard drive. Drat. You would enjoy it. Keep an eye out for it.

Speaking of the Big A, they could do what they usually do - post a photo of the book's dust cover on G Images which is displayed if people type in, "Pauline Kael."

Be well.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 5, 2013 4:39:01 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Nov 5, 2013 4:39:14 PM PST
pylgrym says:
Vin Diesel should do one of Orson's scripts!
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Steven Schwartz
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Location: Austin, TX USA

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