“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. Too many good writers have disappeared.”
For most of the world not fortunate enough to have lived through the golden age of American cinema, Orson Welles, if remembered at all, is usually reduced to the image of a sad monstrosity; a rotund, bearded oddity acting as shill for the wine industry, or even demented tour guide walking us through the bizarre visions of Nostradamus. In the years just prior to his death, he was also a talk show fixture, booming assorted pronouncements that remained fascinating not for their content, but rather the self-assured manner of delivery. And when he died, finally – inevitably – from a heart attack on October 10, 1985, he was acknowledged as the wunderkind responsible for Citizen Kane, but for the most part, little else. His life, now reduced to wasted talent and stifled genius, inspired little additional commentary, resurrected only at the ten year intervals that coincided with the latest Sight and Sound movie poll. And then, in 2012, he was given the ultimate indignity when his one undisputed work of lasting import tumbled before the inexplicable Vertigo. Not that Welles himself would have been shocked by such a turn of events. He all but called it from the grave.
Now, having been returned to the tomb of indifference once again, we can relish the opportunity to think of Welles anew, thanks to editor and film historian Peter Biskind. The book, My Lunches With Orson, is perhaps the greatest collection of Wellsian lore we’re ever likely to see; raw, unfiltered observations, anecdotes, jokes, and insults so profoundly entertaining that it’s the closest we’ll come to the man’s death bed confessional. And yet, it’s far superior to any cheap memoir that likely would have come out during Orson’s lifetime, for the book remains a transcript of informal conversations, not stilted interviews that are cleaned up in retrospect. Welles’ quasi-agent and friend, director Henry Jaglom, taped numerous lunch dates over a three-year period (1983-85), as the two wined and dined at Hollywood’s famed Ma Maison. Thankfully, because the recording devise was never front and center, the interactions read as intended – two old friends coming to terms with life as lived, full of the expected justifications, rationalizations, and petty jealousies so common to men in the twilight of their careers.
After a lengthy introduction from Biskind, the conversations begin in earnest, though it’s important to remember that they are not necessarily chronological, organized instead into “subjects.” The slight alteration to time and space is crucial, however, in ensuring maximum impact. So grouped, the chats thunder with judgment and undeniable provocation, as Welles rarely shies away from a cheerful cruelty usually hidden by his jolly public persona. And as delightfully honest as Welles is throughout the book’s all-too-brief presentation, it’s important to remember that even one-on-one, Orson was a master of manipulation. He is, point of fact, the most authoritative bullshit artist who ever lived. As with all men driven by monstrous, unchecked ego, Welles intones without a shred of doubt, bellowing not for himself alone, but a world that failed to pay proper tribute. Nothing is without global import, with nuance and subtlety left to those of a more timid stature. Even as disagreeable and just plain wrong as he is (which is quite often), he is never less than the most interesting man in the room; a true colossus of charisma, charm, and winking hucksterism.
From his opening blasts against the legendary Irving Thalberg (“He was the biggest single villain in the history of Hollywood”) and Louis B. Mayer (“I wouldn’t put it past him to have people killed”), Welles becomes the anti-establishment savant of legend, playing up his hatred to such an extent that it approaches naked virtue. Thalberg (and later David O. Selznick) were enemies of the state, so to speak, not because they lacked talent, but rather that they instigated a war against the director. It was the age of the producer, the result of which was the negation of “the personal motion picture in favor of the manufactured movie.” In sum, art (via the artist, who must not submit to being managed) fell away to the small minds of dollar-driven factories. Same as it ever was, it seems. But for Orson, it was a changing of the guard from which no semblance of decency could ever hope to return. As if to traffic in much-needed therapy, then, Welles returned to personal attack and insult; the man who knows more because he’s done less.
On Norma Shearer (Thalberg’s widow): “One of the most minimally talented ladies ever to appear on the silver screen, and who looked like nothing, with one eye crossed over the other.” And Irene Dunne: “So dry-toothed and such a good fucking Catholic that I wanted to kick her in the crotch. Such a goody-goody.” Or Jennifer Jones: “She was hopeless. But the poor girl is nuts, you know. Something is wrong there.” One by one, he picks apart the carcasses of Old Hollywood with such relish, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that he’s wildly off-base about damn near everything. Was Joan Fontaine just a “plain old bad actor”? Did John Huston know how to make a picture without actually directing it? And what about the sainted Alfred Hitchcock? Was he “senile a long time before he died”? Even when he’s encouraging, he’s lost in the wilderness. Is Bringing Up Baby really the greatest picture ever made? And who on earth believes Rear Window to be a forgettable piece of trash? Hell, the man didn’t even like Chinatown. But he earns our respect for not being a slave to consensus. Who else could get away with attacking Laurence Olivier in such a fashion: “Larry is very – I mean, seriously – stupid.”
And the stories! From Oliver Reed to Yul Brynner, Elia Kazan to Jean-Paul Sartre, juicy gossip oozes from the pages like open sores of payback, daring us to interject with contrary information. Peter Bogdanovich comes away bloodied and battered, Charlie Chaplin is reduced to the ash heap of the second-rate (“great hunks of sentimental dumbness with these shafts of genius”), and everyone from Humphrey Bogart to Sergei Eisenstein is subjected to a lash so unforgiving that it’s a wonder the reader will ever give them a second chance. Throughout, Welles dips and pivots from Hollywood to sheer conspiratorial madness, asking us to believe that Carole Lombard’s doomed plane was shot down by Nazi agents, or that AIDS just might be transferred through hugs and handshakes. He howls about John Houseman’s undeserved late-in-life fame (twenty TV commercials to his one!), explains his girlish attraction to Gary Cooper, and ponders Charles Laughton’s self-hating homosexuality. He’s a prideful liberal, yet angrily defends his prejudices and stereotypical pronouncements. He clings to artistic integrity, yet weighs an offer to appear on The Love Boat.
And while the Welles of this period is bawdy, jovial, and witty (“There’s never been a tall dictator – never”), the somber, pensive man always wins out. At the time of his death, Welles was picking through nineteen unfinished projects in various stages of development, all of which were mere pipe dreams with no hope of completion. Appropriately, it was his unrealized King Lear that gave him the most angst, and so much wasted breath is given to talk of funding, casting, and locations that it’s a wonder he didn’t walk into the ocean. He knew it was never going to be, as did Jaglom, and he all but says that he’s simply keeping up appearances to avoid that final, most permanent depression. That a man like Welles, flirting with 70, should have to beg for relevance and financial stability is enough to reduce us lesser mortals to tears. “I’m imprisoned by a simple economic fact,” he reasons. “Get me on that fuckin’ screen and my life is changed.” But too many bridges had been burned. Too many stops and starts along the way. Too unreliable, unmanageable, and yes, unpredictable. He couldn’t even get a gig selling Wesson Oil.
In the end, My Lunches With Orson just might serve as the final word on this master of the craft, capturing as it does the fundamental dilemma at the heart of all men ahead of their time. He’s a warning bell to all those who peak too soon, living out their lives in a last, desperate hope to surpass the unsurpassable. He’s the hateful humanitarian, the Democrat who preferred the company of Republicans, the lothario who seemed so often to be so alone. The man who upholds truth as the greatest of all human constructs, while simultaneously hiding from its implications. A con-artist extraordinaire, with the magician’s heart, Welles nipped at so many heels that it’s a wonder he accomplished a thing. There’s a laziness to the man, despite the constant activity, no doubt the product of an insecurity so deep it could only lead to utter paralysis. But the George Orson Welles of this indispensable tome is so unfailingly human, that one can’t help but love him, numerous faults and all. Because at the end of the day, he’s a prick with panache; a stylized shit with an unending capacity to make the tedium of life surrender to a tale well told. He’s a dream weaver, at bottom, and one of the finest America has ever produced. Endlessly quotable in a quotidian world.