08 Aug 2013

Lunching with Orson

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Orson Welles with Henry Jaglom.

Orson Welles was renowned for his keen wit, sharp tongue, and profound sense of personal grievance. Consequently, Welles’ lunch-time collected commentary, compiled in the recently published My Lunches with Orson, will inevitably be a treasure trove of good lines.

Peter Apsden, in the Financial Times, gives us a few good excerpts:

Orson Welles was stymied at virtually every stage of his career by those whom he believed to be inferior and, in consequence, terminally unsympathetic to him. Welles wrote the template for the way in which arrogance and insecurity fuel each other to produce breakdown. There was the stellar ambition of Citizen Kane (1941), and then immediate and lengthy decline. His physique swelled, his patience shortened, his friends, or “friends”, scarpered. He ended his days at his regular hang-out, Hollywood’s Ma Maison restaurant, draping himself, as Gore Vidal once described, in ‘bifurcated tents to which, rather idly, lapels, pocket flaps, buttons were attached in order to suggest a conventional suit’.

Which is where we find him in My Lunches With Orson, Peter Biskind’s sensitively edited account of Welles’s conversations with Henry Jaglom. The British-born actor and director became Welles’s regular lunch partner and confidante, and taped their dialogues over a couple of years before Welles’s death in 1985. This is Welles riffing uninhibitedly on his life and times, lurching from mischief to melancholy, and it is riveting. I defy anyone not to feel moved by its narrative arc of greatness laid low by its own luminosity.

The book is already attracting attention for its waspish indiscretions. Here is Welles on Woody Allen: ‘I can hardly bear to talk to him. He has the Chaplin disease. That particular combination of arrogance and timidity sets my teeth on edge.’ On Laurence Olivier: ‘Larry is very – I mean, seriously – stupid.’ On the pianist Arthur Rubinstein: ‘The greatest cocksman … [he] walked through life as though it was one big party.’ On Rear Window (1954): ‘Everything is stupid about it. Complete insensitivity to what a story about voyeurism could be … Vertigo. That’s worse.’

But beyond those headlines, there are fascinating pointers to how Welles viewed himself, and his work. What, asks Jaglom, did they think of Kane in England? ‘It was not gigantically big in England. Auden didn’t like it,’ replies Welles, obviously preferring to stew on the verdict of a single poet rather than the bathetic business of box office returns. ‘I always knew that Borges … hadn’t liked it,’ he continues. ‘He said that it was pedantic, which is a very strange thing to say about it, and that it was a labyrinth. And that the worst thing about a labyrinth is when there’s no way out. And this is a labyrinth of a movie with no way out.’ And then we can imagine that famously booming voice turn warm with the sudden discovery of a good joke.
‘Borges is half-blind. Never forget that.’

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One more interesting paragraph from John Powers, at NPR:

If you love old movies, My Lunches with Orson is like being handed a big tin of macadamia nuts — you just keep devouring it. Welles talks about everything from the secret side of Katharine Hepburn — she talked dirty and was hot to trot — to how The Godfather is ‘the glorification of a bunch of bums who never existed.’ He knows this because he used to bed the same showgirls real gangsters did. Although a lifelong man of the left, Welles says the right-wingers in Hollywood were much nicer people — especially John Wayne, who was a prince.

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