“Hows everything?” the waiter asks.
“We’re talking,” the large, grumpy man with the deep, timbre-rich voice snarls back.
This is just one of many uncomfortable moments recorded by filmmaker Henry Jaglom during his lunch encounters with Orson Welles toward the end of the legendary auteur’s life. Peter Biskin, the noted critic, editor and essayist best known for his books on “New Hollywood” (1998’s “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls”) and the rise of the independent film movement (2004’s “Down and Dirty Pictures”) has a new one coming out next month, and if this excerpt reprinted in Vulture (and the June 24 issue of New York Magazine) is any indication, it looks like a hoot.
“My Lunches With Orson: Conversations Between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles” is more than just griping about the wrong kind of mustard in the chicken salad (although that’s in there, too.) It’s an opportunity for Welles, at his lowest Paul Masson-hawking nadir, to belly-ache about perceived slights (how dare Swifty Lazar exit by saying “take care of yourself”) and spread rumors about people’s character (Grace Kelly allegedly used a shared dressing room for intimate purposes when she thought no one was looking.)
But between full-frontal disses to Richard Burton, to whom he refuses an audience with Elizabeth Taylor (“I’m in the middle of my lunch”) and lashon hara toward Irving Thalberg (“the biggest single villain in the history of Hollywood”) there is, as one would hope, more than a soupcon of first-hand sagacity concerning the Golden Era of motion pictures.
Welles’ description of non-premeditated moviegoing struck me as most fascinating:
“In my real moviegoing days, which were the thirties, you didn’t stand in line. You strolled down the street and sallied into the theater at any hour of the day or night. Like you’d go in to have a drink at a bar. Every movie theater was partially empty. We never asked what time the movie began. We used to go after we went to the theater.”
One would simply enter, sit down, then wait for it to start again, then leave upon realization that “this is where we came in.”
You would think that the director of such tightly-wound films as “Citizen Kane,” “Touch of Evil” and “The Lady From Shanghai” would be repulsed by this notion, though it does, I suppose, add a bit of interactivity on behalf of the audience, trying to figure out what the heck is going on.
Also of note is reading that Welles was a full-on believer in the Carole Lombard plane crash conspiracy theory. The incident, which took place on January 16, 1942, killed the full compliment of crew and passengers (22 in all) and, coming so soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor, was quick to become a magnet for the early fnord set.
Welles repeats the claim that the cabin was loaded with “big-time American physicists” and was “shot down by the Nazis.” The cursory Internet research I’ve done tells me it slammed into mountain due to pilot error and the other passengers were members of the military (Lombard was on a war bond tour). Nevertheless, if I was at lunch with the 20th Century’s finest raconteur, I might believe there were Nazis in the Nevada mountains, too.
Orson Welles’ final years have long been a depressing topic. What this chat with Jaglom makes me realize is that maybe a splash of modernity would have done the early 1980s some good. If late era Orson was around today he wouldn’t be sparring with voiceover directors about frozen peas. With the endless reality television and satellite radio hours to fill he’d probably be doing something slightly more dignified. Or at least more entertaining. At the very least he’d have a podcast. While I can’t claim to be much of a Henry Jaglom fan (I checked out from him with 1996’s “Last Summer in the Hamptons” and haven’t looked back) I’m glad he took his tape recorder along to his lunch encounters, and even more glad he’s decided to let us have a listen.
Read more of “From the Time Capsule: Lunch Conversations With Orson Welles.”