People who have read Peter Bogdanovich's THIS IS ORSON WELLES will want to read this book, too. Less a series of intentional interviews, it is, as the title tells, transcriptions of informal table talk at lunch. Welles insisted that the tape recorder be out of sight so that the conversations could be as unselfconscious as possible, and the results are nothing if not candid and opinionated--but also stimulating and insightful. Anyone who has seen an interview with Welles knows what a spellbinding talker he was, and every one of the book's 27 chapters verifies this, nearly every one of the 286 pages. The conversations all come from the last three years of Welles's life.
The overall picture that we get is mostly personal. As one might expect in lunching with a friend, there's gossip, personal opinions, remarks about his current projects, even comments on mid-80's current events (the death of Tennessee Williams, the fear of catching AIDS from casual contact). Sometimes other people (Richard Burton, Jack Lemmon) drop by their table (Welles is rude to Burton, kind to Lemmon). A representative snippet from the book is these sentences about Welles's friend from the Forties, the actress Carole Lombard. He tells Jaglom that Lombard swore freely in an age when the daily discourse was more reserved: "My God, she was earthy. She looked like a great beauty, but she behaved like a waitress in a hash house. That was her style of acting, too, and it had a great allure." The gossip of the first two sentences becomes in the last sentence a smart point about Lombard's art. That happens a lot in the book, as I suppose it could at the lunch tables of America every day: what starts off as dishing dirt transforms into something intelligent. With Orson Welles talking, this change seems to happen much more often, of course.
It would be a mistake not to mention that most of the names and topics arising in the book concern people that Welles views with much less nostalgia and fondness than he held for Carole Lombard. No one in Welles's comments probably fares worse than Laurence Olivier and John Houseman, but he is not one to moderate his opinions, and the opinions can get fairly blunt and blistering. Still, it's a book no one curious about Welles as a person and an artist will want to overlook.
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.
The first portion of the book is a brief history of Orson Wells life and work in the movie business. It also chronicles several other film makers. It is a good brief history of the industry and fairly interesting. If you love the movie business you will certainly enjoy this small short stroll down memory lane.
The main body of the book is a detail structure of the conversations between Jaglom and Wells. While interesting at times it is also a difficult tedious read at times due to the nature of the relationship between the two and their familiarity with each other. Think about a good friend of yours and how when you get together your talks wind their way through a multitude of topics, and something you say has deep meaning for you and your friend where others not privileged to your life would find it difficult to catch the nuance. I found this book that way. The discussions have some poignant insights but often they are tedious, such as the dialogue between Orson and the waiter who obviously have known each other a while but you are left thinking the waiter is either a mind reader or just plain snarky.
If you are a huge Orson Wells fan then you will enjoy this dialogue. If not, then you will find points interesting but it a bit hard and long to get through the text.
I've always liked Hollywood gossip, mostly because the participants take themselves so very seriously, while the stakes are so very low. This book provides plenty of it, and Orson Welles personality really comes through, better I think than a more formal interview could have provided.
Presented as transcribed lunchtime conversations with his friend Henry Jaglom, these dialogues are very funny and insightful - not laugh-out-loud, but entertaining. Welles doesn't self-censor because he knows he'd be long-gone if the contents were revealed, and so he is. John Houseman, Laurence Olivier, and many others come in for a thrashing.
But it also works because Welles doesn't seem to take himself that seriously, as he casually dismisses many directors, producers, and stars of his era - while also giving plenty of credit. This book provides a reader an interesting walk-through of Welles' moviemaking experience and also his personal life - and Welles' honesty makes it clear there were many disappointments in both, which he's happy to discuss to Jaglom (who gives as he good as he gets, which makes the conversations much more interesting than sitting across from some sycophant).
It is melancholy that "Citizen Kane" comes up so much - as you'd expect. But it was 40 years old at the time of these interviews, and it's sad that no other Welles movie came close to it's impact or creative success, which Welles recognizes. It's not that he didn't have plenty of other projects, just that he knew lightning would never strike like "Kane" again. His discussions of other projects almost seem like busy work, more than any kind of true effort.
Welles died at 70 in 1985 - and career-wise, he was mostly irrelevant by then - he was a legend, but not current. Six major stars of the time declined his final project - Burt Reynolds didn't even call him. Burt Reynolds! Compare that to Scorcese (71) or Speilberg (67) - same age, but totally still in the game. But, unlike Welles, that's because those other directors played the game - and from these conversations, it seems like Welles never could. And while he clearly liked his own iconoclasm some of the time, Welles' frustration at himself does often come across.
To best appreciate this book, a reader needs good familiarity not just with "Citizen Kane," but of the Hollywood era of 1940-1975 - names, directors, producers, stars, etc. There's not a lot of explanation given as to who is who, and it will be much more enjoyable if you already know that going in - or a reader will need to do some homework. Plus, it's obviously rooted in 1983-85, so references can easily be lost on uninformed readers.
But for those who need no reminding about who these once-towering figures were, it's a very fun, if often sort of sad, read. It is a lunchtime conversation, not a deep, penetrating interview - so that makes it sometimes less detailed (and lacking follow-up questions), but often more insightful in his behavior and interactions. In one scene with an HBO executive, Welles seems deliberately self-destructive - yet when she leaves, he and Jaglom discuss how he is NOT self-destructive. But he seems very self-aware.
If you believe like I do, that Welles could have been, but wasn't, the greatest moviemaker of all time, this will give a good window into his personality and how he honestly apprised his own career of ups and many downs.
on November 30, 2013
Not as informative as I'd hoped. 80% is half-way gossipy about other people but Welles comes across in those sections as an old, effete just gassing on about others. Welles could easily have passed for Truman Capote at the end of his life had the names in the book been switched. Not that there's anything wrong with that but I have zero interest in that kind of gossip. And you get a pretty good idea that he's making stuff up as he goes along. About 20% actually has him talking about his work and it seems informed, if not new and revolutionary. A great idea to tape these conversation but, all in all, rather pedestrian stuff.
on April 16, 2014
This was an interesting little read. In the mid-80s, actor/director Henry Jaglom tape recorded a number of luncheons he shared with actor/director Orson Welles. Those conversations were transcribed and made into this book, with some notes by editor Biskind.
Welles is kind of like an opinionated hurricane, dominating the conversation, constantly voicing his thoughts and memories, overrunning any statements contrary to his own. He spouts views that are terribly un-PC, which was sometimes fun, sometimes wince-inducing, and seems to pretty much enjoy nothing. At one point in the dialogues, Richard Burton comes over to the table to ask if Welles would be open to meeting Elizabeth Taylor, but Welles rudely dismisses him, then badmouths the actor behind his back. But behind all the blowharding and big name bashing and that's-not-how-it-was-ing, is this hurt old man who struggles with the fact that he needs work, that he cannot make the movies he wants to make, and that the people he thought he could depend on have left him to rot.
I don't know how much of the gossip in this book is true—Welles even admits in the book he's a constant liar—though there's not too much juicy stuff about Hollywood's golden age, and most of the name-calling and potentially libelous material (i.e. the good stuff) is about old studio heads and producers that few people remember. There were several times when Welles and Jaglom spoke at length about persons I'd never heard of, and I wished there were more memories, less disparaging, more insight, less complaining. However, I would have read this book if it was 5 times as long as it was. Welles was an entertaining juggernaut of opinions.
on January 5, 2014
I'm a big fan of Orson Welles' movies, and given the strong early reviews for this book I hoped I'd learn more about them. And to be fair I did learn a few things (in particular about Kane), but for the most part what I got instead were querulous observations about the old Hollywood crowd plus some annoying sycophancy from Jaglom, who comes across as a rather literary kind of toady. Overall this was a letdown.
If you like movie history, this is a must read. You need not even like Welles' movies to be entertained by his stories of the famous personalities he encountered in his life and the off-set gossip he shares about them. People mentioned include Laurence Olivier, Daryl Zanuck, Jack Nicholson, Harry Cohn, Ronald Reagan, Greta Garbo, John Ford, Peter Bogdanovich and many, many more.
Between 1981 and 1983, the filmmaker Henry Jaglom recorded his lunchtime conversations with Orson Welles. These recordings were finally transcribed and the film historian Peter Biskind has edited them into this collection.
Biskind, in his excellent introduction, admits to combining conversations on the same topic and sometimes inserting contextual information into the mouths of the speakers. I do not know what he left out, but he seems unafraid to leave in comments that might embarrass Welles, Jaglom or the many celebrities about which they speak. Having done some similar archival transcript editing myself, I believe Biskind's done a superlative job. I felt like I was at the table as Welles held court. I could not put this book down.
I can't help but think that this may be Welles's final great work of art. The tell-all biography that never was. Highly recommended!
on March 10, 2014
Wells' lunchtime talk was recorded for two years with his assent. He tells insightful, often hilarious stories about other actors, how Hollywood works, about making films, about U.S. politics, about art....on and on. He is brilliant and wise though driven by inner demons to eat to obesity and death from it.
For example, he took a guest to watch Charlie Chaplin shoot a scene. All went well, until one of Charlie's six writers ran onto the set and exclaimed to Charlie that they finally had come up with a funny solution to a scene for him. Charlie was furious as he did not want anyone to know he had hired writers. He wanted everyone to think he invented all the gags himself. He fired that writer.
on August 7, 2014
This book is a transcript of conversations that took place between Orson Welles and Henry Jaglom from the years 1983 – 1985. Recorded with Welles permission, they were eventually transcribed and then edited by Mr. Biskind. For anyone interested in Welles or, indeed, movie-making during Welles’ lifetime, this book is not to be missed.
Primarily, and somewhat surprisingly, this book turns out to be a record of Welles’ attempt to put together some movie deals and his scrambles to make money. Those of us who watch movies but know little about what it takes to put a movie together will have eyes opened by how difficult it was for Welles to put together any deals. Of course, one senses that part of this comes from Welles’ own intractability over certain details but it is interesting nonetheless. It would be nice to say that this book helped to dispel the rumors of his being the source of many of the problems with his own projects; however, that’s not really the case, though we do come to understand his motives a bit more hearing his own voice.
Still, the real fun in a book like this is hearing Welles gossip about the people, places, and films of his career. Certainly, he has opinions about everyone and everything he’s ever encountered. Many of those opinions seem unfounded and sometimes borderline offensive; and yet, what actually comes across as the biggest shock is how little of films and theater he actually liked. He is critical of nearly everything (including his own work) and dismisses much, often in the most unflattering terms. One has to wonder how much of this is just the cranky bitterness of an older man, but he likes to take even the classic movies and most successful actors down a notch. For those familiar with the look and sound of Welles in his latter days (say, from those Paul Masson commercials), it is easier to take the pontificating elder if you imagine him while reading.
In the end, reading this really gives the feel of sitting with Welles and Jaglom around the restaurant table taking a meal and shooting the breeze. It is an open ear into a private conversation, with all the good and bad that that entails. For those of us who are fans of Welles and his work, it can be sad and a little hard to take even amidst the laughter. But, like Welles himself, for all his faults, it’s irresistible.