Orson Welles-Henry Jaglom chats become book

Henry Jaglom in his Santa Monica home.
(Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times)
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Toward the end of his life, Orson Welles and director Henry Jaglom became close in friendship and business. They lunched regularly together at Ma Maison, where the film legend asked Jaglom to tape their unfettered conversations. Thirty years later, film historian Peter Biskind has edited their talks and penned the introduction for “My Lunches With Orson: Conversations Between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles.”

You made those tapes in the early ‘80s. So why did it take so long to transcribe and publish them?

I kept them in my office. I didn’t listen to them, because it was too big a job. So I just thought, well, they’re there for future historians. And two or three people came to me and asked me [about publishing the tapes], and they weren’t people I took seriously. And then when Peter came, he’s a critic of the arts and of film and a respected one. And I said, “You want to put yourself through all this?” And he said, “Yeah, on the one condition that you don’t censor me.”


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I think it’s an extraordinary way of really knowing who Orson was with all the flaws of a great, disappointed, hurt man but with an enormous talent, thwarted to such a degree that he couldn’t express the talent and yet [he had] a never-ending hopefulness and never ceased to work and try to figure out what the next project would be. That’s why I got him to write this whole new movie [“The Big Brass Ring,” an American political drama] toward the end, when he thought he could never write again. It would have been “[Citizen] Kane” at the end of the century the way “Kane” was Kane at the beginning of the century. But then I couldn’t get anybody to finance it.


No one wanted to finance Orson because Orson’s movies had never made a penny, and this town is all about bottom line. I went to every single studio head, just about every big producer and every big star. And all of them wanted to have lunch with him, and all of them fell through when it came to the money.

At the time, you were kind of his Yoko Ono, or should I say platonic Yoko. You were the gatekeeper?

It was definitely the platonic Yoko. I was a bit of a gatekeeper. I stopped people from seeing him or I encouraged others to see him and when he wanted to see somebody, I would arrange it.


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What did the two of you have in common other than great admiration for Welles?

For him, I was young, I had a tremendous amount of energy. I had a great deal of faith in him and I wanted him to make a movie very, very badly. And I wouldn’t give up hope, and I wouldn’t let him give up hope. And we were able, because of our emotional relationship, not to lie to each other. Le Monde called us ... Orson was asked, “You’re so different in ages and film styles. How is it that you’re so close?” And his answer was, “Henry and I were girlfriends.” And it was true. He was such a man when he would sit with Warren [Beatty] or some of these guys and they’d be telling all these tales of conquest. But with me, he talked about his feelings. He always said he worked as a man but he felt as a woman. And he thought all great male artists had this huge feminine component.

And I put all the energies that I had, that I wasn’t using in getting my films made, into finding somebody [to finance “The Big Brass Ring”]. Finally I found [producer] Arnon Milchan and I found the money, and we celebrated. We understood why the studios wouldn’t support him because none of his films ever made a penny. But he knew the actors loved him, so he was sure that he would get one of them. And one by one, each actor turned [him down], even two of my closest friends: Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty had nice excuses compared to the others. Jack had spent his career building up to a certain price and he and his agent felt it was wrong to do something for a lesser price. That price was bigger than the budget of our whole movie. Warren had just completed “Reds,” which was an enormous undertaking. He said, “Tell Orson it’s as if I’ve been up all night in a whorehouse... [and I’m] exhausted beyond belief. I come out into the daylight and who is standing there with her arms open to me? Marilyn Monroe. Tell Orson I’d love to, but I really, really can’t.”

And then when I finally got actors to agree, Orson was impossible. When I got Bobby De Niro, he said, “He’s too ethnic.” When I suggested Dusty Hoffman or [Al] Pacino, he said, “Nobody in Kansas would vote for any of those three people.” He had the narrow vision of his time, unfortunately, in certain areas.

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The shock that really reduced him in his last years was the fact that his fellow actors found one reason after another [not to do the film], even that silly actor who’d become a star, Burt Reynolds. He’d asked Orson to write the introduction to his autobiography. Burt Reynolds didn’t even have the elegance or the taste to answer him directly. He sent a letter from his lawyer, saying, “I’m sorry, but Mr. Reynolds is busy right now making real movies,” and he underlined the word “real.” That broke Orson’s heart.

In addition to not making films that were commercial, he was often incredibly rude to people who could help him.

That became his defense. People with whom he made movies will tell you he was not rude. It was when he couldn’t make the movies, his only defense was to be rude.

That lunch in the book with a woman from HBO, he was very rude and I was kicking him under the table. Afterwards, I said, “You sabotaged that.” And he said, “No, I didn’t... I knew from the beginning, they’re not going to give me the freedom to do it creatively, so why waste time?”

What’s ironic is that lo these many years later, cable television would have been exactly the right place for him.

When I saw “The Sopranos,” I reached for the phone and then forgot that Orson was dead. What’s going on in television now, Orson would have gone crazy for and would have been a master of this wonderful long-form storytelling where you can really tell the truth.


So what’s next for you?

I’m editing a movie called “The M Word,” which is coming out later in the year. It’s about menopause. And Tanna Frederick is starring in it with Michael Imperioli and Frances Fisher. And I’m now in preproduction for a film I’m starting to shoot in two weeks. That’s called “Ovation” and it’s all backstage at a theater.


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