TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Orson Welles, who died in 1985, was known as one of America's greatest filmmakers and greatest interviewees. He was legendary for his ability to talk. For years, there were rumors that filmmaker Henry Jaglom had taped hours and hours of their conversations but that the tapes had been lost. They weren't. And now, the transcripts have been released in a new book, "My Lunches with Orson: Conversations Between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles," edited and introduced by Peter Biskind.
Our critic-at-large, John Powers, has read the book and says that it's both a treat and a revealing glimpse of a man whose brilliance included a knack for self-mythologizing.
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: If you ask me to name my favorite movie scene, I'd choose the one in "Citizen Kane" when newspaper owner Charles Foster Kane steals his rival's 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 vive, 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 friend, filmmaker 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 monologist; 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, quote, "the glorification of a bunch of bums who never existed," unquote. 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. Here, for instance, Charles Foster Kane replies to his financial trustee, who objects to his newspaper's editorial policies.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CITIZEN KANE")
GEORGE COULOURIS: (as Thatcher) Charles, I think I should remind you of a fact that you seem to have forgotten.
ORSON WELLES: (as Kane) Yes...
COULOURIS: (as Thatcher) That you are, yourself, one of the largest individual stockholders in the public transit company.
WELLES: (as Kane) The trouble is, you don't realize you're talking to two people. As Charles Foster Kane who owns 82,364 shares of Public Transit Preferred - you see, I do have a general idea of my holdings - I sympathize with you. Charles Foster Kane is a scoundrel. His paper should be run out of town. A committee should be formed to boycott him. You may, if you can form such a committee, put me down for a contribution of $1,000.
COULOURIS: (as Thatcher) My time is too...
WELLES: (as Kane) On the other hand, I am the publisher of The Enquirer. As such, it's my duty - and I'll let you in on a little secret; it's also my pleasure to see to it that decent, hardworking people in this community aren't robbed blind by a pack of money mad pirates just because they haven't anybody to look after their interests.
POWERS: 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, 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. And judging from this book, I suspect the grand Orson would have passed the same verdict on himself.
GROSS: John Powers is film and TV critic for Vogue and Vogue.com. He reviewed the new book "My Lunches with Orson." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org.