The rise and fall of Orson Welles’ filmmaking career has grown legendary over the years, its tragedies epitomized by the transition of the once-striking young prodigy into a beefy Falstaffian grump in his later years. Even as Welles’ job opportunities evaporated, however, he never lost his creative aspirations and thorny wit. Though his last completed project, the brilliant essay film “F for Fake,” bombed theatrically in the early seventies, Welles spent the next decade making feeble attempts to get other projects off the ground until his abrupt death in 1985. “My Lunches With Orson,” a series of candid conversations between Welles and the younger director Henry Jaglom in the early-to-mid eighties, captures the older man’s mindset during the challenges of his twilight years.
More than, the collection of transcripts in the new book (which Metropolitan Books releases this week) have been edited by Peter Biskind into a wonderfully fluid peek into Welles’ mind. Rich with acerbic observations about cinema, theater, filmmakers, actors, politics and the essence of storytelling, “My Lunches With Orson” might be the elephantine storyteller’s last great work. Culled from audio tapes that gathered dust in Jaglom’s attic for years (which may or may not have been created with Welles’ approval), the conversations in the book all take place at the well-trafficked Hollywood restaurant Ma Maison, where Welles regularly held court. Here’s a sampling of a few notable, invariably surprising anecdotes and opinions expressed by Welles to Jaglom over the course of the years documented in the book.
“Citizen Kane” is a comedy.
The 1941 classic, Welles’ first feature and the one routinely cited as the best movie of all time, certainly has its witty moments — but the dark tale of a newspaper mogul rise from rags to riches has never been discussed as an all-out comedy. Welles, however, makes an interesting case. While he wouldn’t categorize it as “a fall-in-the-aisles laughing comedy,” he argues that “the tragic trappings are parodies…There is slight camp to all the great Xanadu business.” Just as Welles’ self-awareness informed his image in the public eye, he took a similar approach to his filmmaking, starting with his first feature. The grand overstatements in “Kane,” Welles argues, are inherently funny because they’re over-the-top.
Charlie Chaplin stole Welles’ idea for “Monsieur Verdoux.”
For years, the only credit Welles has received for his involvement in Charlie Chaplin’s 1947 talkie about the notorious man who killed multiple wives is that he came up with the original idea. Welles tells Jaglom it was more complicated than that. In Welles’ version of the event, he wrote the entire screenplay, but Chaplin wanted the hog the spotlight as not only director and star but screenwriter as well. Welles even goes so far as to insist that he planned on directing Chaplin in the lead role for several years before the slapstick icon insisted he take on the reigns himself. Regardless of whether or not there’s truth to this claim, Welles clearly feels bitter about Chaplin’s lasting fame. “Chaplin was deeply dumb in some ways,” Welles says, even while admitting that there are “shafts of genius” in his films. However, Welles finds that “Modern Times” doesn’t deserve the hype. “It doesn’t have a good moment in it,” he claims.
He admired Pauline Kael.
In 1971, New Yorker critic Kael published a widely circulated essay entitled “Raising Kane,” in which she asserted that Herman J. Mankiewicz deserved sole credit for for the “Citizen Kane” screenplay even though he officially shared it with Welles. Her argument has been widely debunked but nevertheless had a major impact on historical research of the production. That’s enough to keep Welles mad at her for the rest of his career, but he actually expresses admiration for Kael’s work. “I love Pauline, because she writes at length about actors,” Welles says. “I think she’s wrong a lot of the time, but she’s always interesting.”
Welles takes credit for his famous speech in “The Third Man.”
In Carol Reed’s famous 1949 postwar noir, Welles played the memorably elusive Harry Lime, a black market dealer who fakes his own death. Though he appears in only a handful of scenes, Welles gets the movie’s best monologue, during a conversation with his old friend Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) as the two ride a Ferris wheel high above Vienna. Justifying the value of war to Holly in a colorful monologue, Harry says that even though the Swiss have experienced “five hundred years of democracy and peace,” all they have to show for it is “the cuckoo clock.” While Graham Greene is credited with writing the screenplay, Welles says he wrote his big speech — in addition to “every word I spoke, all my dialogue.” He adds, “it’s unfair, because the cuckoo clock is made in the Schwartzland, which is not in Swizterland at all. And I knew it when I wrote the line! And did the Swiss send me letters!”
Charles Laughton was ashamed of his homosexuality.
Welles claims that straight actors in London’s West End had to pretend they were gay to land parts. Charles Laughton, on the other hand, “couldn’t bear the fact he was homosexual,” Welles says. “He was so afraid the world would discover it. He believed in art, and all that, always searching for something beyond what acting can be, or writing, or anything.”
Laurence Olivier was in love with himself…really in love with himself.
It seems ironic coming from a famous egotist like Welles, but the actor shares a pretty bizarre anecdote about Olivier, whose name comes up when Jaglom asks about the actor’s failing health. “Larry wanted to be so beautiful,” Welles says. “He told me that when he looked at himself in the mirror, he was so in love with his own image it was terribly hard for him to resist going down on himself. That was his great regret, he said. Not to be able to go down on himself!”
HBO wanted to work with Welles.
In a meeting with HBO executive Susan Smith at Ma Maison shortly before his death, Welles attempts to pitch a miniseries set in the wake of a military coup in a Central American country, with all the action taking place on a resort. But when Smith makes an offhand comment about her interest in a show set in the Dominican Republic, Welles grows furious that she would suggest a specific setting outside of the fictional country he has in mind. The conversation quickly goes awry, with Welles proclaiming, “I don’t want to be iced off like that.”
Hitchcock is overrated.
He may not take criticism particularly well, but Welles sure dishes it out. In one his more shocking rants, Welles takes major issue with Alfred Hitchcock’s movies. While he admires the director’s earlier British efforts — particularly “The 39 Steps” — the American efforts for which Hitchcock was best known strike Welles as being held back by “egotism and laziness.” Specifically, Welles takes issue with “Rear Window” (“Everything is stupid about it…[Jimmy Stewart] is kind of looking to the left and giving as bad a performance as he ever gave”) — before taking even greater issue with “Vertigo.” “That’s worse,” Welles says. “I think he was senile a long time before he died.”