All’s Welles That Ends Welles: A New Book From Chatham Film Festival’s Peter Biskind
By Sam Pratt
One afternoon in Los Angeles in 1983, Richard Burton cautiously approached Orson Welles’ usual table at Ma Maison, to ask if he could bring Liz Taylor over to meet him. Welles rudely shooed both away. Now, with the publication of Vanity Fair critic and Chatham Film Festival honcho Peter Biskind‘s newest book “My Lunches with Orson,” anyone can have a chance once denied even to Hollywood royalty: to sit on Welles’ left at Wolfgang Puck’s exclusive restaurant, where actor-director Henry Jaglom discreetly taped their weekly luncheons. Following swiftly on the heels of his January book, Down and Dirty Pictures, Biskind — a renowned film critic and Hollywood historian — has selected the choicest cuts from those meals during the last three years of Welles’ life. Rural Intelligence attended a recent book party held for Biskind in Spencertown at the home of his neighbors Ruth Reichl and Michael Singer, and later chatted with him about the genius behind Citizen Kane, and many other achievements, gifts, and letdowns.
SP: Orson Welles comes across here as the ultimate dinner party guest — full of juicy anecdotes, piercing insights, and score-settling jabs at his famous friends, from Kenneth Tynan to Greta Garbo. Are these stories he had told countless times before, or is he opening up to Jaglom?
PB: Welles felt quite relaxed with Jaglom, so his stories about people like Chaplin and Bogart arise naturally from the conversation. But that doesn’t preclude the fact that he probably told these stories a millon times. For Welles it wasn’t possible to be totally spontaneous. But here he’s much looser than in his ‘official’ interviews. For example, he feels relaxed enough to tell plenty of politically incorrect jokes — sexist, racist, homophobic jokes which are in pretty poor taste. Yet he does it in sort of a lovely way, so in spite of it all I wasn’t offended. Maybe if he had been telling anti-Semitic jokes I would have felt differently.
So a lot of the material in this book he may have said many times in private, but had never appeared before in print. I think that’s what he had in mind with Jaglom: Having the last words on himself.
SP: These conversations serve almost as a substitute autobiography for Welles, at a time in the ’80s when various competing biographies were buffeting or burnishing his reputation. To what extent can readers assume he is a reliable narrator? Or does it matter?
PB: Welles always made a point of mythologizing himself. But he is also very self-deprecating, and it is charming. If you were Orson Welles, it would be hard not to realize that you peaked with your first movie, and it’s been downhill ever since. That was especially hard for someone as smart as Welles. He always felt that he was the smartest guy in the room, and usually he was. But he hadn’t made a film in years.
He still had the breadth of experience and intelligence and story-telling skills, but he was deteriorating. He imagined a point when he wouldn’t even be able to physically make a film, even if he found the money. There also was a whole anti-Welles faction he wanted to combat, such as [New Yorker film critic] Pauline Kael, whose [since debunked] argument that [Herman] Mankiewicz co-wrote Citizen Kane really galled him.
SP: Welles is revealed here as remarkably erudite. He reads Montaigne, cites Heidegger, discuses Sartre, explains Austro-Hungarian cultural history, renders verdicts on Napoleon and LBJ. He seems omniverous in his interests and opinions, passing judgment on everyone from James Joyce to Joan Rivers.
PB: Welles’ conversation is like a cultural roller-coaster; he could speak intelligently on such a huge spectrum of subjects. It’s sort of breathtaking, even if you don’t agree with him. Jaglom would challenge him on something that seemed nutty, and he would always come back with a brilliant explanation. His opinions were so original, and he would never back down.
SP: Jaglom has his moments, but comes across as mostly a sounding board—like Wallace Shawn humoring André Gregory. Was he mainly trying to draw his friend out for posterity, or was it just that Welles dominated every conversation?
PB: That was just the nature of their relationship. Welles was a very dynamic figure, and a lot times he was talking about things Jaglom didn’t know anything about, such as his relationships with much older actors. At one point he gives an amazing explanation of the history of clowns, and how Chaplin’s genius was to meld two different traditions of clowning.
Welles was not just a sponge, regurgitating stories. He was a very reflective, thoughtful, original guy. Imagine if he had taken a different path — he could have had the career of Elia Kazan or John Huston, of whom he was jealous. There were so many roads he didn’t take. He talks about how he turned down directing Tennessee Williams. He even talks about running for Senator in California. Imagine him instead of Alan Cranston! In a way it was a shame he ever went to Hollywood .
SP: Welles talks wistfully about wanting “a Verdi ending,” a burst of productivity and genius late in life. But at other times he appears to work against himself, as in one disastrous pitch to an HBO producer which was recorded at Ma Maison. Did he fear actually securing funding for another project, due to the wildly high expectations any new Welles production would face?
PB: [Easy Rider producer] Bert Schneider said that Welles was just ‘frozen.’ He didn’t think Welles could make another movie. Schneider claims he offered to back Welles in the late ’60s or early ’70s, but Welles wouldn’t commit.
I got the feeling that he overthought everything. He always had an excuse for not going ahead. When a producer came to him with The Cradle Will Rock [about Welles’ theater company resisting pressure from the House Committee on Un-American Activities], he suddenly had reservations about “cannibalizing” himself in his first return to directing. Right off the bat, he hesitates, and reasons against himself.
The later years were a perfect storm of Welles being both his own worst enemy, and also really being in difficult circumstances. It wasn’t solely that he defeated himself.
SP: Welles keeps demanding perfection, at the same time that he’s very willing to experiment. At one point he spends a lot of time strategizing about how to trick some French backers into thinking he’d shoot in 35mm, when he really wanted to use a crude 16mm camera for some aesthetic reason.
PB: That’s part of what makes Welles seem so contemporary now. He was struggling to make another movie, so he would choose techniques and fundraising strategies that we now associate with today’s independent filmmakers. He would have liked to make more “essay films” like F For Fake. But it was too clever for his audience, too far ahead of his time.
SP: Welles’ conversation sometimes has this sublime-yet-ridiculous quality… He’s hyper-conscious of his accomplishments, and eager to demonstrate his continued command of all his artistic powers, at the same time that he’s totally besieged by banal problems: Tax collectors hound him; flaky directors dangle offers at him, then reneg; waiters bring the wrong dishes; his arm falls asleep under his ex-wife; toward the end, even his knee brace betrays him. Yet he’s still the great Orson Welles. Should readers read the book as pathos, or vindication, or both?
PB (pictured at right): All of the above. If I had to reach for an overarching metaphor, Welles reminds me of Gulliver’s Travels in Lilliputia. He’s a giant talent tied down by pettiness — incapacitated by tiny little people. It’s not a very flattering image, but to some degree it rings true.
SP: As a film critic, editor, and Hollywood historian, probably you were less surprised by his stories than most. But were there any parts that really floored you — took you by surprise?
PB: I didn’t quite realize the breadth of Welles’ political involvement. The book includes his comments about France during World War II, and his changed attitude toward Nazi collaborators. He decided that people like Maurice Chevalier weren’t as culpable as he had once felt. He came to see that sitting next to a Hollywood swimming pool was not the place for criticizing people’s choices of being killed or not killed. Then in other cases he can’t put politics aside, for example with On the Waterfront. [ED.’S NOTE: Director Elia Kazan provided names of alleged Communists during the McCarthy hearings in the ’50s, and Welles felt that Kazan used the film to justify that betrayal.]
SP: There’s a mixed current of pride, humor, and frustration running through the conversations. Welles sends up his own vanity one moment, then the next brags that “I do not have on my record a single clear-cut artistic failure.” Do you agree with his self-assessment?
PB: Outside of his one unalloyed work of genius [Kane], it’s kind of a mixed bag. I recently re-watched Lady from Shanghai and Touch of Evil, and both have problems. There’s brilliant stuff in them — Welles’ own performance in Touch of Evil is one of the greats, especially when he’s onscreen with Marlene Dietrich. But then there are the ridiculous performances by Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh. You start rooting for the leather-jacketed druggie delinquents to toss her in the river.
SP: Are you planning to show anything at the Chatham Film Festival this fall which you’d characterize as Wellesian? Will you do anything related to the book?
PB: I haven’t even begun choosing the films yet! I don’t start until the New York Film Festival makes its selections… Last year I had hopes for Cloud Atlas, but I didn’t think it worked very well.
Anyway, I don’t want to use the Festival to promote my own work. Maybe I’ll show Citizen Kane just for the hell of it, so people can see it on a big screen. The intelligence behind his films, and the technical things he accomplishes, are one of a kind. It’s a tour de force, technically, and acting-wise, and script-wise. There aren’t many people with his kind of boldness.
SP: I gather you’re working on another book already.
PB: I’ve finished the first chapter, a bit of cultural criticism called Adventures in Extreme Culture. I’m arguing that various movies and TV shows that once would have been marginalized are now mainstream. For example, Avatar. American soldiers are the villains, and the aliens are victims or heros. It turns the whole War of the Worlds paradigm inside out. That was the biggest grossing film of all time, which shows how far we are from 1954.
My Lunches With Orson: Conversations between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles
Edited by Peter Biskind (Metropolitan Books, 320 pages, 2013)
Read an excerpt of My Lunches With Orson here.