Lunch with Orson Welles

Orson Welles

I just finished reading My Lunches with Orson, which is the most interesting and entertaining book that I have read in a while. From 1983 to 1985, Welles would sometimes have lunch with his friend, Henry Jaglom, at Ma Maison, which at that time was the most fashionable eatery in Los Angeles. Jaglom had Welles’s permission to tape record their conversations. Peter Biskind had these tapes transcribed and then edited them into this book. The result is a treasure. It would be hard to imagine a more ideal lunch companion than Welles, who was both a genius and a raconteur (a rare combination).

The conversations cover a wide range of topics, and Welles gives his opinions on various matters. Among other things we learn that he thought Hitchcock’s American films weren’t very good. (I can just hear the howls of outrage emanating from film schools across the country.) Just as he had strong opinions about films, he had strong opinions about people. (Among those he liked were Carole Lombard, Marlene Dietrich, Erich von Stroheim, and Sam Goldwyn. Among those he didn’t like were Irving Thalberg, Woody Allen, Louis B. Mayer, David O. Selznick, Joan Rivers, and John Landis.) The conversations also touch upon Welles’s left-wing political views. One of the book’s more poignant moments occurs when Welles expresses regret over writing a negative review of Ivan the Terrible, because Eisenstein was subsequently persecuted by Stalin.

Welles also discusses his negotiations with producers over various proposed film projects of his. In the final conversations, he seems at wit’s end. His deals have all fallen through. He is in desperate financial straits. He can no longer get commercial work. One suspects that the stress he was under may have contributed to his fatal heart attack. A sad ending, but at least he led a full and rich life.

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