Sunday, January 19, 2014

‘My Lunches with Orson: Conversations between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles’, edited by Peter Biskind

My favourite book on Orson Welles is Peter Bogdanovich’s This is Orson Welles, a career-spanning interview book crammed with beautiful black-and-white plates, which revolves around Orson’s captivating, circumambulatory way with the spoken word. You really think you could listen to him talk, or read transcriptions of his conversations, for ever. So I was excited when My Lunches with Orson was published last year, because more transcriptions could not possibly be a bad thing. It only gradually dawned on me that all the publicity was about Orson bitching, telling salacious tales about old Hollywood, or tearing into sacred cows. And this is the opposite of what I like about his conversation, usually so generous along with its range and intelligence. The publicity was skewed, of course, because that’s what publicity does. There is generosity in these late conversations (between 1983 and Welles’ death in 1985), but it’s usually the frustrated generosity of Welles wanting to do good work, make good films, and being unable to for lack of funding. There aren’t too many complimentary anecdotes. He’s generous to Jaglom in the chapter ‘I smell director’, helping him to avoid pitfalls in the script of his film Always, offering good advice in broad but sure strokes — his instinct for what would and wouldn’t work completely in tact. Elsewhere there are flashes of insight, the best of them on autobiography in art:
Here’s a way to put it: I do not mind seeing the artist naked, but I hate to see him undressing. Show me your cock. That’s all right with me. But don’t striptease. (pp. 107-8)
From the description, Always does sound like a bit of a striptease, so there is generosity in overlooking that, too.

The three projects that fail to get off the ground over the course of the lunches are King Lear, The Dreamers and The Big Brass Ring, the latter an original screenplay that Jaglom encourages Welles to write, an exposé of the capitalist greed inherent in politics which Jaglom sees as the book-end to Citizen Kane in Welles’ career. It’s at once a powerful idea, and a shameless pitch at re-igniting both his interest in film-making, and others’ interest in funding it. Various stars turn it down, and Jack Nicholson eventually agrees (after several years thinking about it), but won’t take a pay cut to do it, meaning that it can’t happen. Towards the end of the book, Welles makes an embarrassingly insecure pitch for a TV series to HBO, and complains that he can’t even get work in adverts any more. It’s a sad end to a life dedicated to intellectual curiosity and artistic integrity. But still, it is Orson talking, and it’s good that there is more of that on record.

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