Breaking Bread and Telling Tales: Henry Jaglom Recalls My Lunches with Orson at the American Cinematheque
July 10, 2014
This piece was originally written for the American Cinematheque, and they graciously gave me permission to re-print it here, in a slightly edited form.
In August 2013, writer, actor, and director Henry Jaglom, a personal friend of Orson Welles in the 1970s and 1980s, appeared at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood to introduce two of Welles' most famous films, Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). During his intro, Jaglom reminisced on some of his memories of Welles, which he collected in his book, appropriately titled My Lunches with Orson.
Welles is one of the most famous figures in cinema history, so hearing stories from a close friend was certainly a treat for the audience that evening.
Jaglom, who was first exposed to Welles' movies at age 16 at Cinema 16, a club devoted to exhibiting films on 16mm, finally got to work with the director when he acted in Welles' incomplete 1972 movie The Other Side of the Wind. Over the course of three to four years, Jaglom lunched with Welles hundreds of times, and in the early-mid 1980s while Jaglom was working on his films Can She Bake A Cherry Pie? (1983) and Always (1985), the two also met frequently in Jaglom's editing room. With Welles’ permission, Jaglom discreetly taped their gatherings, because Welles eventually wanted to write his autobiography but feared he wouldn’t remember certain details from his time in the industry.
Jaglom revealed that several people had approached him over the years about turning the tapes into a book, but he continually declined the offers. Only when his friend Peter Biskind contacted him did he hand over the tapes and let Biskind transcribe them, which resulted in My Lunches with Orson.
Moreso than the episodes in the editing room, where Jaglom remembered that Welles always sat behind him in a wheelchair (which he didn't need) puffing a cigar, the conversations during meals revealed the “human Orson," according to Jaglom. He even shared an anecdote from a time Welles was asked by a French newspaper why the men got along so well, and the headline of the story ended up being: “Henry and I are Girlfriends.” Jaglom explained that their relationship was a “completely fresh one,” and that it was unusual during that time for a man to open up to another man in the way Welles and Jaglom did.
Orson Welles and Henry Jaglom.
Welles shared emotional parts of his life during these lunches, including details about his “heart, feelings, needs, insecurities” – things he didn’t talk about with many people. Jaglom recalled that the tapes contain observations of life from a man who wasn’t pretending to be anyone else; rather, Welles felt free to be “bitchy and judgmental” at times and praising at others, and he freely disclosed his frustrations with the film world, from issues with financing to actors, writers and directors who unfairly judged him.
Jaglom warned the audience that in several instances in the book, Welles could come across as rude; one case in point involved a meeting Welles took with an executive at HBO who initially seemed open to working with him. As Jaglom came to learn, Welles had thorough experience with people sucking up to him and could tell early on if someone was genuinely interested in collaborating. Though Welles could be “so strangely rude,” usually in situations like the HBO one, Jaglom affirmed that he was also a “warm and generous person.”
When asked whether Welles shared stories from the making of the two movies screening that evening at the Egyptian, Jaglom admitted that the director only briefly touched upon both. In regards to Citizen Kane, Welles mainly pointed out the film’s impact on the rest of his career and how most people simply wanted him to prove that he could make another Kane. As for The Magnificent Ambersons, discussions on the film mostly related to the fact that Welles was furious that the last 40 minutes of the film were cut and an “absurd” happy ending was tacked on by Robert Wise while Welles was in South America. Jaglom declared that 98% of the film is amazing, and he instructed the audience to “close your eyes for the last five minutes and imagine 30 more dark minutes” to get a better sense of Welles' original vision.
Over 70 years later, we can still say it clearly is terrific.
Interesting tagline at the top...
Jaglom stressed that even though Welles played into the legend surrounding his character because people were so responsive to it, he always wanted to be able to show his true self. Jaglom shared a story that mirrored Welles' wish: While watching a rough cut of Jaglom’s film Always, which was based on his divorce from his first wife, Welles remarked that he admired how Jaglom was able to show himself as the “pathetic human being” we all can be during trying times. In response to Welles' reaction, Jaglom offered the infamous figure a role in his film Someone to Love (1987), which centered around a group of people discussing why they were still alone at their respective stages in life. Jaglom felt it would be a perfect opportunity for Welles to play himself, and though Welles agreed, when it came time to shoot, the actor showed up with high cheekbones, a “nose like a Greek warrior,” and beady eyes. “Do you remember the whole conversation that led to this?” Jaglom asked Welles. Apparently not!
In the end, Someone to Love, Welles’ last film appearance, was ironically the first in which he was free to be himself, and that real Welles is what My Lunches with Orson is all about.