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Les Marcott

Dining With Orson Welles


February 2014

Looking back at the life and career of the late, great Orson Welles, it's hard to imagine how far he had fallen from the great heights he once ascended to.  By the twilight of his career in the 70's and '80's, Welles was forced to take work wherever and whenever he could find it. The man who gave us perhaps one of the best films ever produced in Citizen Kane was relegated to doing wine commercials (people of a certain age remember the Paul Masson ads), talk shows, comedy roasts, and game shows.  The then current power brokers in Hollywood while publicly worshipping Welles refused to take his calls, or offer him financing for numerous ongoing projects. Welles had found himself in the company of the 'Charles Nelson Reillys' of the entertainment world (no disrespect to the memory of Mr. Reilly.)

It was at this point in his life that a young Henry Jaglom entered Welles's life and the two became fast friends.  Welles would appear in two of Jaglom's films – A Safe Place, and Someone To Love.  In 1978, the two began meeting regularly for lunch at the West Hollywood restaurant Ma Maison.  It has been described as trendy, but its patrons consisted of stars past their prime, not unlike Welles himself.  Due to his portly frame (he once hovered around 400 lbs.) and various health issues, Welles was not exactly ambulatory.  He hid his wheelchair around back and entered through the kitchen.  He was often accompanied by his precious toy poodle Kiki.  But even after considering Welles's sad state of affairs at the time, who wouldn't want to be a fly on the wall at Ma Maison.  Gore Vidal has described Welles's conversations as being "always surreal and always cryptic.  Either you picked up on it or you were left out".

As it turns out, you don't have to be left out.  Beginning in 1983, Jaglom brought along a tape recorder to record their lunch conversations.  Welles gave his blessing as long as the recording device was hidden from his view. The tapes were to ostensibly provide material for a planned autobiography.  With Welles's death in 1985, the tapes sat in Jaglom's garage untouched for almost 30 years until writer Peter Biskind got wind of them. Biskind encouraged Jaglom to transcribe them.  With that done, Biskind edited the transcripts into book form.  My Lunches With Orson is the end result.

These conversations catch Welles at his most raw and revealing, more so than an earlier collaboration with Peter Bogdanovitch which yielded This Is Orson Welles.  The book does capture plenty of salacious Hollywood gossip.  After all, what's Hollywood without it, then or now?  And if the tapes had been released during Welles's lifetime, it had the potential to set Hollywood on fire with his incendiary revelations.  But beyond that, nearly every conversation is peppered with something thought provoking, instructive, witty, raucously funny, and a memorable quote. Even in his last years, these tapes reveal a nimble and an agile mind.  Like a great talk show host, Jaglom keeps Welles focused as he covers a wide range of subjects: politics, the loves of his life, his long running feud with John Houseman, the dirty business of getting films financed/distributed, and yes the making of Citizen Kane.

One of the more profound topics Welles brings up for discussion in his dialogue with Jaglom is the role of the artist in an ever increasing technological and scientific juggernaut.  If science and technology can answer all of our questions and meet all of our human needs, of what relevance is the poet, playwright, musician, and novelist. If everything can be reduced to brain chemistry and the latest scientific breakthrough, then there is no mystery to life anymore.  But Welles continued to seek relevance even as his stock declined.  And while admitting he was an atheist in an early conversation, subsequent conversations seem to contradict that assertion.  In fact, one gets the feeling that Welles was hellbent on a spiritual quest (no pun intended).

There are times, however, when Jaglom becomes exasperated and incredulous at something Welles has uttered.  It is those times that he appears to say something provocative just to keep the conversation going.  One of his best quotes is "I can make a case for all points of view".  Welles calling Citizen Kane a comedy is one of those points of view.  Other times catch Welles acting like a prankish schoolboy with Kiki being his partner in crime.  Once when the waiter is overcome with the smell of flatulence, Welles blames it on Kiki. He reminds Jaglom that is what rich people did back in the old days.  They carried a dog around so they could blame their flatulence on their pooch. Once when greeted by Zza  Zza Gabor, he warns her that Kiki bites Hungarians. He would rudely dismiss Richard Burton and warmly invite Jack Lemmon.  But whatever he did, Welles felt comfortable in that setting and in the company of Henry Jaglom.  Jaglom in an NPR interview made clear that at Ma Maison, Welles didn't have to put on the "dancing bear" act.

The conversations ended for good on Oct. 10, 1985.  Welles suffered a massive heart attack while at his typewriter doing what he did best – working on a script.  Ma Maison closed its doors soon after.  My Lunches With Orson is a fitting tribute to a larger than life figure.  Next year will be the 100th anniversary of the birth of Orson Welles.  Let the celebration begin.

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Les Marcott is a songwriter, musician, performer and a Senior
Writer and columnist for Scene4. His latest book of monologues,
stories and short plays, Character Flaws, is published by
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