Bitter and bitchy, how Welles dished the dirt on Hollywood greats
In his later years Orson Welles became a bitter and marginalised figure. Having been ostracised by Hollywood in the mid-1950s because of his difficult personality and tendency to pursue grandiose projects that shot wildly over budget, he'd spent his middle age wandering around Europe acting in bad films to fund his intermittent work as a director.
By the late 1970s he wasn't producing any films at all, and was reduced to making TV ads for sherry and bad wine and appearing on chat shows to tell tall stories about old Hollywood. Overweight and vaguely pathetic, Orson cast a jaundiced eye on the studio system that had rejected him, and a remarkable new book reveals for the first time just how bitter he was.
From 1983 until his sudden death from a heart attack two years later at the age of 70, Orson Welles had lunch almost every week with his friend Henry Jaglom at a now-defunct Hollywood restaurant called Ma Maison. Welles was planning an autobiography, and had asked Jaglom to record their rambling conversations with a hidden tape recorder.
At ease in the company of an old friend, Orson shared his memories of 1940s and 1950s Hollywood, and in My Lunches with Orson it becomes clear that he had no shortage of enemies in tinseltown. The great Laurence Oliver is blithely dismissed as "stupid", Spencer Tracy is "hateful", Joan Fontaine had "two expressions, and that's it", and Norma Shearer was "one of the most minimally talented ladies to appear on the silver screen".
My Lunches with Orson reveals Welles at his most relaxed and bitchy, and clearly in the mood to settle scores with people he considered less talented than himself. He took a dim view, for instance, of the great Alfred Hitchcock.
'I've never understood the cult of Hitchcock," he told Jaglom. "Particularly the late American movies – egotism and laziness. And they're all lit like television shows," he added witheringly. Rear Window was "one of the worst movies I've ever seen".
The adoration of Hitchcock must have particularly irked Welles, but he seems to have disliked Spencer Tracy even more. "I'm having a hard time trying to think of a great Tracy performance," he told Jaglom, and he "couldn't stand" the Tracy/Hepburn romantic comedies, some of which are now considered classics. "He was just a hateful, hateful man."
Orson didn't think much of Bette Davis either. "I never could stand looking at Bette, so I don't want so see her act."
He ridiculed Humphrey Bogart for "picking fights in nightclubs", and called Charlie Chaplin "arrogant".
Welles did find time to admire the acting of his Citizen Kane co-star Joseph Cotton, and John Wayne, and claimed to have discovered the potential of Marilyn Monroe. But none of those people would have remotely threatened him, and he seems to have lashed out at anyone who did.
During one of his lunches with Jaglom, Richard Burton approached their table and said: "Elizabeth [Taylor] is with me. She so wants to meet you. Can I bring her over?" With needless spite, Welles replied: "No. As you can see, I'm in the middle of my lunch."
When Jaglom scolded his friend for his rudeness, Welles was unapologetic. "Burton had great talent. He's ruined his great gifts. He's become a joke with a celebrity wife. Now he just works for money, does the worst shit."
This was rich coming from a man who appeared on The Muppet Show and did voiceovers for Transformers: The Movie. But however ugly it might sound, Welles's bitterness is understandable when you consider how his once hugely promising career played out.
Born in 1915 into a wealthy Chicago family, Orson was doted on by his overbearing mother, who convinced her child that he was a genius. Mrs Welles turned out to be right, and after making his acting debut at Dublin's Gate Theatre in 1931 at the age of just 16, Orson returned to America to form his own theatre company and take the New York theatre scene by storm.
In 1939 he was wooed west to Hollywood by RKO, who offered him a lucrative two-picture deal. Citizen Kane was acclaimed as a masterwork when released in 1941, and Welles's tale of a megalomaniac newspaper publisher was full of bravura shots and revolutionary effects. It seemed the world was at Orson's feet, but a combination of bad luck and his own egotism soon destroyed his Hollywood career.
His next film, The Magnificent Ambersons, was hacked to bits by RKO, and thereafter a series of grandiose projects collapsed and Welles ended up without a studio. He would always be furious about how Hollywood had treated him, but never seemed to acknowledge that he'd been his own worst enemy in this regard.
My Lunches with Orson gives a fascinating insight into Welles's personality, life and staggering egotism. At one point he told Jaglom that "the movies have never gone beyond Kane". By that he meant that no one since him had significantly expanded the language of cinema, but perhaps he got it slightly wrong. Maybe it was Orson himself who never got beyond Kane.
ORSON ON . . .
I never could stand looking at Bette (Davis), so I don’t want so see her act
Burton had great talent. He’s ruined his great gifts. He’s become a joke with a celebrity wife
‘Rear Window’ was one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen