Orson Welles may have been right: cinema is dead, it can only reconstruct its antecedents. From reading My Lunches With Orson, I can make a case for Welles for being the most frightening dilettante of the twentieth century: a man so bewitched by the great novels and poetry he’s read and the scenarios he’s unwound in his head that his first instinct is to talk them out. For hours. I can understand why Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson rejected the last overture before his death in 1985: why would they risk their careers on an Orson Welles production when Orson’s delineation of the project over lunch at Ma Maison is safer and quicker? A mind as febrile and a tongue as prolix as Welles’ understood the trap.
Recorded by a series of hidden tape recorders that would tickle Richard Nixon’s envy and the litigious instincts of surviving Welles relatives, My Lunches With Orson records the lunchtime chatter whose intermittent brilliance he kicks up like sea spray. The dishes are the best: vulgar denouncements of Joan Fontaine, Bogart, Huston, and archenemy John Houseman (whom Welles darkly suggests had or is having an affair with Virgil Thomson). Ethnic slurs get their place. Sardinians have ugly feet or something. Russians are “just dumb. Peasant dumb. Idiots that I wasted my time on” (Germans, by contrast, show a “mystic” bent: “People who don’t really understand German culture always think Germans are very literal. But they’re not literal at all.”). Laurence Olivier is by turns stupid, loutish, ignorant, vain, and insecure. Often the badinage subverts itself. A chapter devoted to the banalities of Charlie Chaplin the artist turns into a disquisition into Chaplin’s achievements:
What Chaplin did is — there are two basic kinds of clown. In the classic circus, there’s the clown who his white-faced, with a white cap, short trousers and silk stockings. He has beautiful legs and is very elegant. Every move he makes is perfect. The other clown, who works with him, is called an auguste, and he has baggy pants and big feet. What Chaplin did was to marry them, these two classic clowns, and create a new clown. That was his secret — that’s my theory.
A plausible theory! Devoid of knowledge of the comic caprices of the nineteenth century, I can only look at Chaplin in City Lights and Modern Times (Welles: “It is so coarse, it is so vulgar”) and think, “Yeah, that sounds right.”
Fortunately Jaglom, whose sensibility in his own movies marries Cassavetes and a stolid reifying of Rohmer, resists the snake’s hypnotic powers. In This is Orson Welles, scarf wearer Peter Bogdanovich was a courtier, awed by His Vastness but like all flatterers a streak of Uriah Heep lay ready (by 1983 Welles is accusing him of being rude to the help). By contrast Jaglom sees himself as a fellow filmmaker, part of a “community,” and thus has his own opinions about actors and movies and literature, some of which are as terrible as Welles’. Both thought James Mason was an actor of limited range and barely adequate for Odd Man Out — Welles needed a look at himself in Jane Eyre and The Lady From Shanghai to know how an actor out of his depths flailed. They laughed Rear Window away. But he isn’t afraid to call Welles out on his shit. But Welles’ last original script, the hustling of which lurks in the background like the waiters preparing Orson’s glum fish courses, got Jaglom and no less than Gore Vidal’s attention: the story of an FDR power broker who molds a young homosexual senator. No wonder Jack and Warren leapt at the chance to play him. Jaglom understood:
I always acted as if everything was going to go great for him. I needed to act that way to feel that way, so that I could make him feel that way, and hopefully make someone else, or some combination of someone elses, give him the money to work.