Conversations Between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles
Edited by Peter Biskind
Metropolitan Books (MacMillan)
Barnes and Noble
There have been many classic film biographies published in the last decade but none quite like My Lunches with Orson. Within the pages of this book, you'll find transcriptions of conversations between director Henry Jaglom and the man he revered and championed for, Orson Welles. While some other books might attempt to publish interviews and conversations from memory or notes, there is something special about straight transcriptions from recordings. There was some editorial massaging of the Welles recordings due to sound issues and inaudible bits and for the sake of continuity and context. But for the most part these conversations are presented as though you were a fly on the wall listening in on Jaglom and Welles' lunchtime meetings at the restaurant Ma Maison as they talked shop and gossiped.
Jaglom recorded his conversations with Welles not only with his permission but on his request. The agreement made was that the recording device must always be hidden. Out of sight and out of mind, the hidden device recorded a very candid Welles talking about everything including his past career, projects he was eager to work on, people whom he admired and who annoyed him, how others perceived him, his love life and more. I wouldn't call Orson Welles' conversations lurid or salacious. On the contrary, we get a glimpse of a tortured genius, oftentimes paranoid and always opinionated. He felt he had a right to criticize people in the movie business because he was one of them. Jaglom is at times both lavish with his adoration and other times very particular about his questions in order to get Welles to open up about a certain topic. I think Jaglom made Welles feel at ease and because of that we get to read a much more candid Welles. We have to remember though that Welles was also an actor and sometimes these conversations were mini-performances in themselves.
The book starts with an introduction by Peter Biskind who summarizes the careers of Orson Welles and Henry Jaglom and how these conversations came to be and how they came to be transcribed (note that Biskind didn't transcribe them but did some editorializing of them). Part One transcribes the Welles-Jaglom conversations of 1983, Part Two is from 1984-1985. The last conversation recorded happened 5 days before Welles' death in 1985. Each chapter starts off with a choice quote from Orson Welles, often meant to pique the interest or scandalize. You can't help wanting to dive right in with each of those morsels. The backmatter includes an epilogue written by Henry Jaglom along with an appendix containing descriptions of Welles' various unfinished works and biographical summaries of the people whom Welles refers to in the conversations.
A lot of folks I know have already read and reviewed My Lunches with Orson so I don't necessarily bring anything new to the table other than my own opinions. Here are some of my thoughts:
Sometimes looking at the big picture gives us a shallow sense of what a thing really truly is and it's only when we focus in on one small aspect that we get a better understanding. There is a lot to learn about who Orson Welles was as a director, as an actor, as part of the Hollywood elite and as a man. You can't take everything Welles says in the book at face value.
"No, I think I'm absolutely genuine - that's a lie. I never tell the truth." Orson Welles to Henry Jaglom (pg 107)
Have a shaker of salt by your side when you read this book because you'll need it to take grains from. Sometimes things Welles says are his own true opinion and sometimes they are just to get a rise or reaction out of his audience (Jaglom and that hidden recorder). Welles was not afraid to divulge in detail what he liked about someone and what he didn't. Some of his opinions will shock you. His observations are either brutally honest or just plain brutal.
There were some observations that gave me pause and made me really reflect on the subject at hand. For example, Orson Welles did not care for Charlie Chaplin and thought he was an egotist with not much talent. He much preferred Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton and even went on to say that he thought The General was one of the best films ever made. I think over the past couple of decades there has been a huge shift in popularity of Keaton and Lloyd films and much more criticism of Chaplin's work. Maybe Welles' observations were ahead of his time? Welles also questioned the talents of favorites including Alfred Hitchcock (he hated Vertigo), Humphrey Bogart (he called him a second-rate actor) and more. He won't win any fans with these opinions however there is something to glean from his observations about the movie industry. Movies are entertainment and for Orson Welles I think movies were his way to express his creativity. Kind of like John Huston, I think Welles may have seen movies as a lesser of the arts but was still compelled to make them.
If anything, this book got me to think a whole lot about my perceptions of the movies. Some things Orson Welles said made stop and think and other times I wanted to throw the book across the room. Especially when Welles said he hated Art Deco!
If you have romanticized notions of old Hollywood and don't want anything to corrupt that pure ideal, then do not read this book. If you have a thicker skin than that, then don't miss out on the opportunity to reading this captivating, eye-opening, bittersweet and oftentimes wildly entertaining book.
Thank you to Metropolitan books for sending me a copy of this book to review!
UPDATE: There has been a lot of talk about My Lunches with Orson. Here are some interesting links for further reading.
My Lunches with Orson Puts You at the Table with Welles via NPR Books
Q&A: Director Henry Jaglom, Author of My Lunches with Orson via NPR Books
The Art of Irascible Conversation, Found in My Lunches with Orson via Biographile
Hollywood Gossip: At Lunch with Orson Welles via The Millions
An excerpt of the book via Vulture
Stardust Memories ‘My Lunches With Orson’ and ‘Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations via The New York Times
War of the Words via The Paris Review
Henry Jaglom's piece from 2008 via L.A. Times
K.C. of Classic Movies
Cliff of Immortal Ephemera
Drew of The Moviola