07 August 2013

My Lunches With Orson

My Lunches With Orson
My Lunches With Orson: Conversations Between Henry Jaglom & Orson Welles was edited by Peter Biskind, author of Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. The book is a series of transcripts of conversations recorded at the Ma Maison restaurant in Hollywood, in the years before Welles died.

There's an obvious comparison to be made between My Lunches With Orson and This Is Orson Welles, a book of Peter Bogdanovich's interviews with Welles published in 1992. In fact, Bogdanovich introduced Welles to Jaglom: "In 1970 I had introduced Orson to my old friend, filmmaker Henry Jaglom... When Orson and I fell out, Henry stepped in to fill that sort of role in Orson's life". My Lunches With Orson and This Is Orson Welles both contain transcripts of tapes recorded years before they were published, though their contents are quite different.

This Is Orson Welles was an attempt to preserve Welles's account of his entire life and work, one of several such projects Welles collaborated on shortly before he died. (The others were an authorised biography, Orson Welles by Barbara Leaming; and an extended BBC Arena interview, The Orson Welles Story.) The book was written with Welles's co-operation, and he redacted any material he didn't like. (Welles wrote to Bogdanovich: "I said that [name deleted] ought to be put in jail. Well, let's commute the sentence. The book doesn't need it".)

In contrast, after his conversations with Jaglom, Welles did not collaborate on the editing of My Lunches With Orson. In fact, it's debatable whether or not he even knew that Jaglom planned to publish the material. Thus, the result is far more candid than This Is Orson Welles. Welles is surprisingly frank about his personal life ("I loved her, yeah. Very much. But, by that time, not sexually. I had to work myself up to fuck her") and his associates (including Bogdanovich, who he calls "your friend"; Jaglom reminds him: "He was your friend, too").

Welles sometimes appears pretentious: a simple question from a waiter ("And roast pork?") prompts a long quotation from The Merchant Of Venice ("Bassanio says to Shylock..."), while the waiter waits patiently to take Welles's order. Also, his inability to negotiate is extraordinary: Welles starts pitching a mini-series to an HBO executive, though he gives up almost immediately. The executive insists that "it does interest me very much", though Welles responds defensively: "You're wrong. You're really wrong. Boy, are you wrong". Ultimately, the exasperated executive walks out.

Biskind's introduction to the book is quite superficial, recycling well-known details about Welles's Hollywood productions (from Citizen Kane to Touch Of Evil), but skirting over the Shakespeare films in a single sentence. Biskind also claims that Welles "unofficially directed" The Stranger, although he was officially credited as its director. There's no index, and only limited endnotes.

This Is Orson Welles has a more formal Welles interview, and Discovering Orson Welles and Orson Welles At Work have more research about Welles's career, though My Lunches With Orson is a fascinating series of informal conversations. It's pure gossip, but it reveals another side to one of the cinema's greatest directors.