By Lars Trodson
The decline of Orson Welles has begun.
After seeing his star fade in the 1950s and early 60s, Welles began a long ascent about 45 years ago, when he was discovered by French auterists and a new crop of up and coming filmmakers. But now, after all the critical reappraisal, after all the books, articles and interviews, the helium is escaping from the big balloon.
It was inevitable because Welles lived a relatively brief life — 70 when he died. He made just 12 feature films. The vast, vast majority of the movies he acted in are barely worth a look. And quite a bit of his other work — theater, radio work and newspaper columns — was too ephemeral to last.
He's been endlessly picked over despite the meager offerings. So now we are on to the dregs.
The bottom comes in book form, titled “My Lunches With Orson.” Welles is still so famous that there's no need for a last name on the book title. Nobody is going to mistake this for lunching with Orson Bean. But that, after people read this thing, may change.
The “lunches” were with filmmaker Henry Jaglom at Ma Maison in Los Angeles in the two years before Welles died. These taped conversations have been edited by writer Peter Biskind, who wrote “”Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.”
The book has inexplicably received enthusiastic reviews. The back cover blurb from Steven Soderbergh casts the die: “If it wasn't bad enough that I — and every other director — have to compete historically with Orson as a filmmaker, now we have to compete with him as a pure storyteller and true raconteur...”
When you read these dialogues, it appears that nothing Welles actually accomplished seems to be enough.
He may have directed four hit plays on Broadway with the Mercury Players in one season, including the ground-breaking, all-black "Macbeth," but he claims to have turned down directing "The Glass Managerie.
("Did I ever tell you about the play of his I lost, like a fool, to [Elia] Kazan?") He say he was "offered 'Porgy and Bess." Why he turned these plays down remains obscure.
None of his peers seem to measure up, not Spencer Tracy, not Woody Allen, not Laurence Olivier, not John Gielgud, not Adolph Menjou, nobody. Leslie Howard, the actor who played Ashley Wilkes in "Gone With The Wind" and who died in a plane crash during World War II, is reduced to being a "Hungarian Jew." Jean Renoir made "bad movies."
"Mr. Arkadin," anyone?
Irene Dunne, a beloved comedic actress of the 1930s and 40s, was "so dry-toothed and such a good fucking Catholic that I wanted to kick her in the teeth."
A minor actor like Van Johnson? "Well, I was responsible for him coming to Hollywood. I never told him that, so he doesn't know."
Of course, Marilyn has to make an appearance.
OW: "She was a girlfriend of mine. I used to take her to parties before she was a star."
Henry Jaglom: I didn't know that!
OW: I wanted to try to promote her career... I would point Marilyn out to Darryl [Zanuck], and say,
'What a sensational girl.' He would answer, 'She's just another stock player... Stop trying to push these cunts on me...' And then, about six months later, Darryl was paying Marilyn $400,000, and the men were looking at her..."
HJ: God, that's amazing.
How does he feel about Joan Fontaine, an Oscar-winning actress who died recently? "She's just a plain old bad actor." The Salkinds, who produced the 1961 film "The Trial," (they went on to produce the "Superman" franchise in the 1970s) were frauds who balked paying a hotel bill, which caused our hero to lament that he could never go to the Meurice, in Paris, because of the unpaid invoice.
He hates Jean-Paul Sartre because the famous French philosopher never understood that "basically, [Citizen] Kane is a comedy." That would put Sartre in league with a lot of people.
Ingrid Bergman, winner of three Academy Awards for acting, is "not an actress. Just barely able to get through a scene."
Some actors, however, are praised. "Gary Cooper turns me right into a girl!"
Jack Lemmon drops by the table one day and Welles is quite gracious, but later when Jaglom mentions Lemmon for a part in a movie that Jaglom is trying to help Welles get made, called "The Big Brass Ring,",
Welles lets loose:
OW: He's old-looking.
HJ: Really? I was just thinking that he looks good...
OW: Yeah, he looks good in this restaurant, under these rosy lights. But you see him on TV—he's always giving long interviews, he loves to talk, as we know—and he looks every minute of his age..."
Welles knew Meyer Lansky. "I knew them all," he says of the gangsters.
He tells the story about when one of his wives, Rita Hayworth, at one time one of the most desirable women in the world. Rita summons Orson to her hotel in Rome and so we're treated to this scene, straight out of romcomville:
OW: "She opened the door, stood there in her negligee, hair flowing, gorgeous. The suite was full of flowers. The doors opened out on the terrace, overlooking the Mediterranean. The smell, you know that smell. It was overpowering. Rita looked at me, tears in her eyes, said, 'You were right. We belong together. But by then I was crazy for this ugly little Italian girl, who gave me so much shit..."
Welles, in his work, avoided every cliche, yet here he is throwing them out like confetti. Jaglom must have been mesmerized by the sound of the voice, because, on paper, this story seems pathetic.
There's also the case of the unreliable egg.
In "Lunches," Welles says to Jaglom: "I'm a racist, you know.Here's the Hungarian recipe for making an omelet. First, steal two eggs. [Alexander] Korda told me that."
But Welles tells this same story in his movie "F For Fake." Only in that movie, he attributes the origins of the omelet story to the artist Marcel Vertes:
"Like all Hungarians, he (Vertes) told the best Hungarian jokes. The omelet, you know that, don't you? Sure, it's a classic. An omelet? It's in our Hungarian cookbook. First, steal an egg."
That's verbatim from "F For Fake."
Sometimes one wonders, when reading this book, whether Welles was baiting Jaglom to see how much the young filmmaker actually knew about his career, because Jaglom never mentions "F For Fake" when he hears the Hungarian anecdote.
Welles may love the Hungarians, but others, well...
Irish-Americans? "The wearin' o' the green? Oh, my God, to vomit!"
Welles also seemed to have been around when everyone of them pulled off their most famous bon mot.
"I knew [pianist Artur] Rubenstein for forty years. I told you his greatest line. I was with him at a concert in Albert Hall, and I had no seat, so I listened to the concert sitting in the wings. He finished. Wild applause. And as he walked into the wings to mop his face off, he said to me, 'You know, they applauded just as loudly last Thursday, when I played well.''"
The good thing about having "no seat" is that no one can trace whether you actually bought a ticket!
How about when Richard Burton stops by the table at Ma Maison to say hello?
Richard Burton: Orson, how good to see you. It's been too long. You're looking fine. Elizabeth is with me. She so much wants to meet you. Can I bring you over to your table?
OW: No. As you can see, I'm in the middle of my lunch. I'll stop by on my way out.
HJ: Orson, you're behaving like an asshole. That was so rude.
Thanks for telling us, HJ! And this was at a time when Welles was trying to raise money in Hollywood to make movies.
Welles also seemed to have been victimized by everybody.
OW: I was one of the original backers of Chasen's — and Romanoff's.
HJ: You owned Romanoff's?
OW: Yes, and he never gave me anything. Nor did Chasen's. I was a founder of both restaurants.
John Huston was an artistic thief, where others would have called him an inspiration.
OW: His first picture, The Maltese Falcon, was totally borrowed from Kane."
Late in the book, Welles claims to be talking to a young producer named Micheal Fitzgerald, who produced John Huston's adaptation of Flannery O'Connor's "Wise Blood."
OW: There is a young man, thirty-three years old, handsome, tremendously intelligent and rich as hell, who financed a terrible picture called 'Wide Blood.'"
HJ: Not "Wise Blood."
OW: "Wise Blood," I guess, whatever it is.
Later in that same scene Welles says that he has an offer to direct a film called "The Cradle Will Rock," which depicts a famous moment from the 1930s when Welles and producer John Houseman were shut out of a Broadway theater because the work (written by Marc Blitzstein) promoted union and other pro-worker ideas. It later moved to another theater and was performed without props or an orchestra. Welles says he won't do the $4 million picture because he can't stand Ring Lardner, Jr. (who happened to be a two-time Academy Award-winning screenwriter by that time.)
This latter bit of Wellesian whimsy is all too familiar to anyone who has followed his career. It's undeniably clear, from this book, that Welles was both lying about his prospects but was also paralyzed by fear. He wasn't going to work. He promises people scripts that never materialize, and he repeatedly turns down money, deals, opportunities. Before this book, it appeared that some A-list stars rejected him, and that seemed like a terrible thing to do. But I suspect, by the mid-1980s, they — Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty, Robert Redford — knew there would be no script, no chance, no nothing. They've been chastised over the years for not coming to Orson's rescue, but now I think that's unfair.
My feeling is that all of them have had the graciousness to not say what really happened, an act, ultimately, to preserve the honor of someone they admire.
Once, I scorned them. How could they betray my Orson! Now, reading this book, I understand.
Here's why. The most scalding moment in the book comes when an executive from HBO, Susan Smith, stops by the table hear a movie pitch from Welles. He may have felt humiliated, but it is instructive to note that, if the conversation took place in 1983, it had been 25 years since Welles had directed a Hollywood picture. ("Touch of Evil" was in 1958.) Anybody would have, and should have, asked to hear what his new movie was about.
What takes place here, even for the most devoted of Wellesians, is cringe-inducing.
Welles tells Smith that he has an idea for a "mini-series set in Majorca or San Tropez, where the richest people in the world go. Or, better yet, a Central American country that is overthrown by a coup d'etat..."
SS: I'm very interested in doing something about the Dominican Republic. Because I think that it's kind of an interesting—
OW: I wouldn't be remotely interested.
OW: Because I have my own story, in my own Dominican Republic. I've invented my Dominican
Republic. I'm not interested in real history, because I know Latin American history to an unbelievable degree. I'm an expert on it. And you cannot tell that story using an individual country...
SS: Oh, I only said Dominican Republic more than Acapulco, 'cause —
OW: I don't understand why you don't understand it, frankly.
Henry Jaglom (HJ): There's a resort like Acapulco in the Dominican Republic.
OW: We're not getting anywhere.
HJ: No, no. Wait, wait, wait—wait! We're just trying to understand.
OW: I'm not gonna go on. "Cause if a resort doesn't immediately interest her, it won't, even if I go on for an hour.
HJ: Wait a minute, I don't agree. I don't agree.
This goes on for another two pages. A petulant, faded genius is now making a modern, successful movie executive grovel at his feet. Awful.
Someone called this book “expertly edited." I don't know how one would know that, unless they had heard the original tapes. But perhaps they were. Maybe Welles was so discursive, or so drunk, or so incomprehensible, that it is in fact a certain kind of genius that Biskind was able to wrestle it into something remotely readable. But that's not the same as enjoyable.
It doesn't matter. Whatever the reviews say, nothing in the book sounds very much like real dialogue. It all sounds stilted, unconvincing. This would have been repellent to Welles. But maybe he was pulling Jaglom's leg the whole time. Maybe everything Welles said was a hoax; a hoax to end all hoaxes.
I'd like to believe it, but even a joker shouldn't turn on everyone.
At one point, Jaglom and Welles talk about the man who offered Welles the most expansive contract in Hollywood history, the famous contract that gave Welles final cut on "Citizen Kane." That man was George Schaefer.
According to Welles, he got the RKO contract not because he was a famous Broadway director, or the most well-known radio producer, but rather, according to Welles' own version in "My Lunches With Orson, it was because Schaefer was a stooge. He, according to Welles, "didn't know any better. None of the other guys would ever have given me a contract like that."