To be privy to the friendship of Orson Welles must have been a strange thing. For a figure whose reputation was so towering, his celebrity so at-large, his rejection of the Hollywood machine inevitably came at a price – for as famous as he was, Welles never ceased being the outsider. And in Peter Biskind’s transcriptions of Welles’s conversations with filmmaker Henry Jaglom, that frustration is revealed to be marrow deep.
What we see here, however, isn’t the tortured artist who feels his craft stymied, but the human being in all his personal and gossiping thoughts. How he felt towards Katharine Hepburn (“She laid around town like nobody’s business”) to Woody Allen (“He has the Chaplin disease. That particular combination of arrogance and timidity sets my teeth on edge.”). Recorded from conversations at the defunct Ma Maison, former celebrity hotspot at Melrose Avenue, Welles has opinions on everything – from celebrities and movies to food, finance, and (yes) even race relations.
It’s a refreshing, though not always politically correct, look at a man whose triumphs and failures have been such a part of cinematic lexicon that he had inadvertently become a caricature of his own persona by the end of his life, like his friend Hemingway before him. The drunk, brutish, albeit genius filmmaker who became the very thing he lampooned in Citizen Kane.
For his part, Henry Jaglom seems to take much of this in stride. Like his peer Peter Bogdanovich, whom the two mention with approval, he sees Welles as an educational tool and allows the large figure to go on his long-winded heavy monologues. In this sense, we’re privy to the innerness of Welles, the untainted-by-second-opinions Welles.
In his frustrations, his failed attempts at financing his films, his one-person soapbox, his flushed morals, there is a sense of truth in Welles. He owns up to his failures and the openness with which he expresses it, and he expects that of other people. Detesting the timid for their silent arrogance, he seems to take pride in his own open wounds and admitted faults.
My Lunches with Orson may not contain the most thought-provoking insights into the acclaimed filmmaker, but it is a record of a very interesting and singular character. The likes of which we’ll never see this side of the wind again.