If you asked me to name my favorite movie scene, I'd choose the one in Citizen Kane when newspaper owner Charles Foster Kane steals his rivals' best reporters, then throws a party in his own honor. As musicians literally sing his praises, we watch Kane dance with chorus girls wearing a look of radiant delight. It's a moment bursting with promise and cockiness and joie de vivre, made all the more exuberant because Kane's pleasure is so obviously shared by Welles himself. Only 25 — but already famous from Broadway and radio — Welles has the air of a man who knows he's making a movie that would one day be named the greatest of all time.
Now if you've seen Citizen Kane, you know that things don't turn out so well for Kane. The same proved true for Welles, who went on to have one of the great wounded careers in modern art. Although he made other major films — from The Magnificent Ambersons to Chimes at Midnight — Welles spent decades struggling to get money, starting unfinished projects and falling into sloppiness. He was eventually reduced to doing commercials for supermarket wine and being the greatest talk show guest ever.
That's where we find him in My Lunches with Orson, a new book that collects and edits the table talk between Welles and his filmmaker friend Henry Jaglom. In the early 1980s, the two regularly lunched together at the Beverly Hills restaurant Ma Maison, and Jaglom taped their conversations, if "conversation" is the term. You see, Welles was an inveterate monologuist, so Jaglom winds up being basically a rhinoceros bird carried along by this whopping beast of a man.
If you love old movies, My Lunches with Orson is like being handed a big tin of macadamia nuts — you just keep devouring it. Welles talks about everything from the secret side of Katharine Hepburn — she talked dirty and was hot to trot — to how The Godfather is "the glorification of a bunch of bums who never existed." He knows this because he used to bed the same showgirls real gangsters did. Although a lifelong man of the left, Welles says the right-wingers in Hollywood were much nicer people — especially John Wayne, who was a prince.
As I read, I found myself calling up YouTube clips of Welles just to hear that extraordinary voice, so resonant and filled with life.
Welles shared Kane's knack for self-dramatization and self-commentary, and My Lunches with Orson is charged with the drama of grand failure. He's constantly complaining about how badly the film world is treating him. Yet at one point a woman from HBO is at their table saying she'd like to work with him, and he's so insulting that you see why he struggled to raise money. Underlying the insult is Welles' know-it-all vainglory — he's constantly lecturing Jaglom — and the habitual self-destructiveness of a bon vivant who loses his badly needed job as pitchman for Paul Masson by going on a talk show and saying he lost weight by giving up wine.
At some level, Welles surely grasped his failings — or "sins," as he preferred to call them. After all, his enduring theme was the glory, and tragedy, of the grandiose self, be it Kane, Harry Lime, or Falstaff in his Shakespeare film Chimes at Midnight. And being a natural showman, he didn't merely live the tragedy of the thwarted artist; he performed it. He helped set the template for artists from Norman Mailer to Lena Dunham, whose art keeps blurring the line between the self and the public persona.
One great virtue of My Lunches with Orson is that it sends you back to Welles' own work, which naturally remains far more eloquent than these conversations. At the end of Touch of Evil, Marlene Dietrich offers an assessment of Welles' character, the magnificently corrupt lawman Hank Quinlan. "He was some kind of a man," she says. Judging from this book, I suspect that the Grand Orson would've passed the same verdict on himself.