Tape recordings made in the three years before Orson Welles’ death in 1985 capture the legendary film director’s outsized personality.
As editor Biskind (Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America, 2010, etc.) explains in his introduction, Henry Jaglom talked Welles into acting in his first feature, A Safe Place, in 1971, and they became friends. Jaglom’s generation worshipped the creator of Citizen Kane as a groundbreaking auteur who pioneered their sort of personal filmmaking; Welles liked to be worshipped. By the time Jaglom began recording their conversations over lunches at Ma Maison, Welles hadn’t made a movie in 10 years, and F Is for Fake (1974) had flopped. Aided by Jaglom, he was trying to get financing for a film version of King Lear or his political script, The Big Brass Ring. But nothing came through, and Welles’ income from TV commercials had also dried up; his reputation was at a low point. In conversation, Welles shows himself eager to disprove his critics, as well as to savagely gossip about his bitterly estranged theatrical partner, John Houseman, and to comment unflatteringly on the talents of friends/rivals, from Laurence Oliver and John Huston to Marlon Brando and Peter Bogdanovich. Jaglom, an admirer but not a sycophant, occasionally protests such judgments, but he’s unfailingly supportive of a friend they both know is in the twilight of his career. Welles could be mean-spirited and insufferable, but he was also blazingly intelligent. His nailing of Woody Allen and Charlie Chaplin as sharing “that particular combination of arrogance and timidity [that] sets my teeth on edge” is characteristic of his sharp wit about every aspect of moviemaking, and he’s just as smart about history, music and fine art. You can understand why his friends were so devoted.
Like most oral histories, a tad self-indulgent but filled with insights and good dish that movie buffs will relish.