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Welles is at his most catty, candid and entertaining in ‘My Lunches With Orson’

Dennis King Published: August 16, 2013

Ever since he succumbed to a heart attack in 1985, and with his reputation constantly ebbing high and low, Orson Welles has become a Falstaffian Hollywood figure even larger in death than he was in life.

For years rumors have swirled about that there existed a lost store of audiotapes recording shockingly candid conversations that Welles carried on late in his life with his long-time friend Henry Jaglom.

Jaglom, an auteur filmmaker and actor, in fact seems set to become Welles’ Bosworth with the recovery of those tapes (which had long gathered dust in a storage garage) and their publication as “My Lunches with Orson: Conversations Between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles” (Metropolitan Books, $28).

Recorded during the last few years of Welles’ life, 1983-85, when the great man dined regularly at Ma Maison restaurant in West Hollywood with Jaglom, a friend and ally who was 23 years younger, this treasure trove of freewheeling conversations has been cannily edited by noted film historian Peter Biskind into a breezy, gossipy quasi-memoir that displays the raconteur Welles at his unguarded, indiscreet, nakedly honest best (or worst, as the case may be).

Biskind sets the stage with a 25-page introductory essay providing biographical details of Welles and Jaglom’s lives and relationship and information on how the recordings were made. Welles was fully aware that his candid statements – many catty and gossipy, some poignant and profound, a few delusional and tragic – were being preserved for possible future publication. But that certainly didn’t cause him to edit himself or to spare anyone from his razor wit or stark (if oftentimes off-target) judgments.

He’s especially tough on some of the greatest thespians of his time. Of Tulsa native Jennifer Jones he quipped, “She was hopeless. But the poor girl is nuts, you know. Something was wrong there.” Of Joan Fontaine: “A plain old bad actor.” And her sister, Olivia: “Neither … could act. I never understood their careers.” On Norma Shearer, he scoffed, “One of the most minimally talented ladies ever to appear on the silver screen.” Even the great Laurence Olivier fell to Welles’ withering regard: “Larry is very – I mean, seriously – stupid.”

Not surprisingly, Welles, who did legendary battle with studio bigwigs for most of his career, reserved especially acid observations for some of the biggest of the big. Of the sainted Irving Thalberg, he sniped, “He was the biggest single villain in the history of Hollywood.” And of Louis B. Mayer: “I wouldn’t put it past him to have people killed.”

Welles’ juicy stories cut a wide swath through Hollywood history and loop in a who’s who of the mid-20th century movie scene, offering colorful anecdotes (some affectionate, some unflattering) of Yul Brenner, Elia Kazan, Gary Cooper, Charles Laughton, Humphrey Bogart, Howard Hawks, John Ford and many others. He reserves special contempt for one-time confidante Peter Bogdanovich, and even his faint praise contains a stinging punchline (of Charlie Chaplain: “great hunks of sentimental dumbness with the shafts of genius,” and Alfred Hitchcock, “senile long before he died”).

Many of his boldest pronouncements are sheer balderdash (‘Rear Window” a piece of junk; “Bringing Up Baby” one of the great movies of all time?) But then, this was the man who was a card-carrying magician all his life and who perpetrated some monumental hoaxes (the 1938 radio broadcast of “The War of the Worlds” and the film “F for Fake”), so everything he says should be taken with a grain of bitter salt. Still, amid all the tall tales, caustic judgments, prevarications and pearls of wisdom, there’s much to be learned in these always pithy conversations with Orson. Great man or bitter, aging crank, he was always great company.

- Dennis King