My Lunches With Orson

by Φ

Excerpts of Conversations Between
Henry Jaglom & Orson Welles, 1983 – 1985.

On Rita Hayworth & Love.

HENRY JAGLOM:  I just saw Lady from Shanghai again. She’s so good in it

ORSON WELLES:  Are you kidding? She was magnificent! And she thought she wasn’t. And nobody in town would give her any credit for it.

HJ:  Makes you realize what a waste her career was.

OW:  She was a really talented actress who never really got a chance.

HJ:  They say you ruined her in that film. Cut off her famous red locks, dyed what was left blond without telling Harry Cohn.

OW:  [with sarcasm]  Yes, that was supposed to be my vengeance on her for leaving me. I made her character a killer & cut off her hair, & all that. That’s pretty profound psychological work, isn’t it? Why would I want vengeance? I fucked around on everyone. And that’s hard on a girl, very hard.

HJ:  Did she believe that vengeance business?

OW:  No, never. She always thought it was the best picture of her life. Defended me, & it. [...] Rita came & cried, begged to do it. Of course, I said, “Yes.” So suddenly, I’m stuck with the studio’s bread-&-butter girl, from whom I’ve been separated for a year. I was dragged back into marriage & the movie.

HJ:  You were not divorced yet?

OW:  No. So then we reunited. Had to be, no other way to direct the picture. I moved back in with her. It wasn’t really like working with an ex-wife, because we still love each other. Then the hairdressers & people got after her. They worked her up with stories about who I was screwing. It’s a regular Hollywood thing—all those people who live off the stars. She was deeply suspicious of everybody. She’d been so terribly hurt in her life, she wouldn’t believe that I would not do that to her. So she threw me out. I was devastated.

HJ:  Had you the intention of staying with her? Even though she was an alcoholic? And depressed?

OW:  Forever? Yeah. ‘Cause I knew she needed me desperately. I would have stayed with her till she died. There was nobody else who would’ve taken care of her like I would. I didn’t know she would be that sick.

HJ:  And you didn’t mind that?

OW:  It doesn’t matter whether you mind it or not—you do it.

On Women & Games.

OW:  Women are another race. They’re like the moon, always changing. You can only win by being the cool center of their being. You have to represent something solid & loving. The anchor. Even if you’re not. You can’t tell them the truth. You have to lie & play games. I’ve never in my entire life been with someone with whom I didn’t have to play a game. I’ve never been with anyone with whom I could be exactly as I am.

On Politics & Guilt. 

OW:  Politics is always corrupting. Even saints in politics. The political world, is itself, is corrupt. You’re not going to satisfy that urge to spiritual perfection in any political movement without being betrayed & without betraying others. Only service, direct service, say, helping alot of starving kids in a Third World country, is impeccable.

HJ:  I should feel guiltier than I do.

OW: Guilt is an entirely masculine invention. No female has guilt. And that’s why the Bible is so true!

HJ:  How can you say that? The Bible was written by men!

OW:  Yeah, I know. But the Garden of Eden story is such a perfect embodiment of the fact that—who feels guilty? Adam!

HJ:  Yeah. But the men who wrote the Bible make Eve give him the apple.

OW:  Sure. But she doesn’t mind!

HJ:  Because it’s a male’s idea of a female.

OW:  I think guilt is a vice, to a large extent, & I think it is a typically masculine vice. You may find it in women, but rarely. If you were religious, your absence of guilt would be a crippling thing.

On Books About Movies & Younger Filmmakers. 

OW:  I’d rather not read [an autobiography of a filmmaker]. I don’t read books on film at all, or theater. I’m not very interested in movies. I keep telling people that, & they don’t believe me. I genuinely am not very interested! For me, it’s only interesting to do. You know, I’m not interested in other filmmakers—& that’s a terribly arrogant thing to say—or in the medium. It’s the least interesting art medium for me to watch that there is. Except ballet—that’s the only thing less interesting. I just like to make movies, you know? And that’s the truth! But I do know quite a bit about early movies, because I was interested in movies before I made them. And I was interested in theater before I went into it. There is something in me that turns off once I start to do it myself. It’s some weakness, In other words, I read everything about the theater before I became a theater director. After that, I never went to plays or read anything. Same thing with movies. I believe that I was threatened, personally threatened, by every other movie, & by every criticism—that it would affect the purity of my vision. And I think the younger generation of filmmakers has seen too many movies.

On Borges, Sartre & Criticism. 

HJ:  What did they think of Kane in England?

OW:  It was not gigantically big in England. Auden didn’t like it. Nor Ambersons. Some people called it warmed-over Borges, & attacked it. I always knew that Borges himself hadn’t liked it. He said that it was pedantic, which is a very strange thing to say about it, & that it was a labyrinth. And that the worst thing about a labyrinth is that there’s no way out. And this is a labyrinth of a movie with no way out. Borges is half-blind. Never forget that. But you know, I could take it that he & Sartre simply hated Kane. In their minds, they were seeing—& attacking—something else. It’s them, not my work.

HJ: You would think they would love Kane, because they could interpret it as a big attack on capitalism.

OW:  But they don’t have the sense to understand it. The critics frothed at the mouth, because it shows a good side of the oppressor.

HJ:  They thought you admired Kane? And his opulence?

OW: The truth is—The one they really couldn’t stand was Touch of Evil, because that showed the final decadence of the capitalist world.

HJ:  That’s why they should love it!

OW: I’m more upset by the regular, average, just-plain critics.

HJ:  I can understand that.

OW:  For a couple of years after Kane, every time I walked in the streets of New York they shouted at me, “Hey! What the hell is that movie of yours about? What does it mean?” Not, “What is Rosebud?” but always “what does it mean?” The Archie Bunkers. It was Antonioni to them! All those mixtures of things—”What kind of thing is that?” Nobody says that now. Everybody understands. I told you about John O’Hara’s review of Kane? He wrote the greatest review that anybody ever had. He said, “This is not only the best picture that has ever been made, it is the best picture that will ever be made.”

HJ:  What do you do after that?

OW:  Nothing. I should’ve retired.

On Biographical Superspective & Shakespeare.

OW:  I have turned so against biographies in the last few weeks, because I read two great biographies. Both brilliantly written & very sympathetic. On Dinesen & Rober Graves. Two of my gods, you see, and one is written by an adoring biographer, who was close to him for twenty-five years. But I learned alot of things about him I didn’t want to know. If you do the warts, the warts are gonna look bigger than they were in life. If these people were my friends, the warts wouldn’t be as important to me as they seem in the book. We all have people that we know are drunks, or dopeheads or have bad tempers or whatever, & they’re still our friends, you know? But in a book you focus on it. And these biographies have diminished those two people so much in my mind. I wish I had never read them. They deny me somebody who I’ve loved always. [...] Dinesen was brilliantly careful to present herself as the person I wanted to love. And if she was somebody else, really, I’m sorry to know it. And I suddenly think to myself, “You know, there’s no such thing as a friendly biographer.” With writers, they become my friends from the testimony of the pages they have written. And anything else diminishes what I feel. If I’m enraptured by any writer’s work, I don’t want to know about him.

HJ:  But doesn’t it add another dimension that—

OW:  Nothing. I know everybody thinks that way, but I don’t believe it. I don’t want to keep hearing that Dickens was a lousy son of a bitch. The hateful Dickens, you know. I’m very glad I don’t know anything about Shakespeare as a man. I think it’s all there in what he wrote. All that counts, anyway.

HJ:  I’m constantly trying to understand: why has there been nobody since Shakespeare who has approached his genius? And how is it possible that one individual, three hundred years ago—

OW:  Definitively. He wrote all the plays that we need. And he knew it. He knew it. He wrote a short verse in which he said that nobody would match him. He was apparently an enormously charming man. Nobody ever spoke against him. Everybody loved him. And what’s interesting are the new discoveries about his acting career, that he probably played much bigger parts than we had heretofore thought. It’s not almost certain he played Iago. We know he was chubby, of course, to the point of fatness, because of the line in Hamlet, when the queen says, “Our Hamlet is fat & short of breath.” The mystery surrounding Shakespeare is greatly exaggerated. We know alot about his financial dealings, for example. He was brilliant in arranging finances, you see. He died very rich from real-estate investments. The son of a bitch did everything!

On Art as Confession. 

HJ:  Back to artists showing themselves in their work, isn’t F for Fake at least partially biographical or autobiographical? Don’t you reveal yourself there? At least it poses as a confessional film. In which Elmyr de Hory, the art forger, is the fake. And then, on a second level, Clifford Irving is the fake, for having fabricated that biography of Howard Hughes, & then written a biography of de Hory called Fake. And, finally, the filmmaker—you—is the fake.

OW:   Not at all. It’s a fake confessional. I’m not really confessing. The fact that I confess to be a fraud is a fraud. It is just as deliberate & manipulative as that. No I think I’m “absolutely genuine”—that’s a lie! I never tell the truth.

HJ:  So, you’re not really beating your breast in F for Fake?

OW:  I don’t get anything off my chest. That’s a kind of romanticism I don’t like. The personal aspect of romanticism. I don’t want to know about the hang-ups of the writers or movie people, either. I’m not interested in the artist; I’m interested in his work. And the more they reveal, the less I like it. Proust holds me by his enormous skill. But the subject matter is not that interesting. He wants us—It’s not—he’s being—I don’t know how to explain it. Here’s a way to put it:  I do not mind seeing the artist naked, but I hate to see him undressing. Show me your cock. That’s alright with me. But don’t striptease.

On Questioning Art History & the Limits of Form. 

HJ:  I’ll never understand why F for Fake didn’t do better here.

OW: The tragedy of my life is that I can’t get the Americans to like it. Outside of New York, the critics hated it. In Chicago, Cleveland, St. Louis—they were furious with it. They seemed to think I was attacking critics. Which I wasn’t, but why not? It did make fools of them. In France, for instance, all the art critics denounced it. That’s what happens when you show a [Kees] Van Dongen that Van Dongen didn’t paint, & the critics say he did. The great Andre Malraux, with tears coursing down his face in the Museum of Tokyo where there were five Modigliani’s, came up to one of them & said, “At least the true essence of Modigliani has been revealed to me.” All five of them were fakes, painted by de Hory. Who should go down in history as a serious art forger. But you can’t say that to critics, you know. Anyway, I think, F for Fake is the only really original movie I’ve made since Kane. You see, everything else is only carrying movies a little further along the same path. I believe that the movies—I’ll say a terrible thing—have never gone beyond Kane. That doesn’t mean there haven’t been good movies, or great movies. But everything has been done now in movies, to the point of fatigue. You can do it better, but it’s always gonna be the same grammar, you know? Every artistic form—the blank-verse drama, the Greek plays, the novel—has only so many possibilities & only so long a life. And I have a feeling that in movies, until we break completely, we are only increasing the library of good works. I know that as a director of movie actors in front of the camera, I have nowhere to move forward. I can only make another good work.

HJ:  F for Fake is a new form, film in the form of an essay, which is one of the things that appeals to me. You created a new language.

OW:  I hoped F for Fake would be the beginning of a new language that other people would take up.

HJ:  I wish you had done more films in that format.

OW:  I wish so, too. It just broke my heart that it never caught on. Because that would have solved my old age. I could have made an essay movie—two of ‘em a year, you see? On different subjects. Various variations of that form.

HJ:  Maybe the critics’ scorn for Clifford Irving damaged the film itself.

OW:  He’s the unsympathetic fellow in the film. But he’s kind of fascinating, sitting there & talking about what makes a poseur.

HJ:  And what makes something ‘art’.

OW: And, really, ‘what is art’? it’s a very interesting question, you know? One that has never been sufficiently answered. I’m deeply suspicious of the unanimity that people have about the whole range of art & music. Because I don’t think it’s humanly possible for everybody to have the right opinion about something. Therefor, some of it must be wrong. I wish some critics would say, “You know, all this is trash!” But nobody has.

HJ:  Do you mean that the reputations of Beethoven or Picasso should be challenged?

OW:  Yes. Why are we admiring painters now, like Morillo, who are going to disappear? Conversely, nobody took El Greco seriously until seventy-five years ago. Why is there this absolute unanimity & certainty that everybody has not only about painting, but about everything—movies; anything you want to name. Everyone agrees on what is classic & what is not.

HJ:  But you don’t think there are some works that transcend—

OW:  That’s the question. Are there? I’d like to think so, but I’m not—

HJ:  You’ve made one, arguably two. The fact is that everyone agrees about Kane. It’s on everybody’s list.

OW:  Who knows how it will fare in thirty years? [2013]

HJ:  It’s already withstood the test of time. I don’t know why, because I don’t think Kane is better than F for Fake.

OW:  I think we can’t pursue this conversation is we do it around my work. Because I get coy.

HJ:  I don’t think we can question a Beethoven symphony as being anything less than—

OW:  One would think not. And I would personally die for Bach & Mozart, Bartok, Beethoven. I’m sure I’m right about them—& about Velazquez, too—but what troubles me is when people accept the whole edifice—the movies, the books, the paintings, what’s in, what’s out—just because it’s already been accepted. That arouses my suspicion. Even if it’s right. I also don’t believe, in literature, that anybody can have taste so catholic that he genuinely likes Joyce & Eliot—& Celine. And yet, many people accept all of them. I say there’s a point where somebody can’t really dig that other fellow if they dig this one. Our eyes, our sensibilities, are only so wide.

HJ:  But I wonder if you & I are defining art in the same way. Because, for instance, Beckett, for me, who I consider great—

OW:  I agree that he probably is. But I don’t understand it—the greatness. I believe that people are right when they say he’s great. But I cannot find it, & I—

HJ:  Why do you believe it, then?

OW:  Because I suspect I’m tone-deaf to it. Just like I think there is music that I don’t understand. I know when I sense something is wrong. I know when I think something is fake. I know when the emperor has no clothes. But I don’t see a naked emperor with Beckett. He’s just opaque to me. I think [Francis] Bacon is a great painter, but I hate his paintings. I don’t really question his reputation; I just keep walking, rather than stopping & staring, you know. I believe that there is no law, & should be no law under the heavens that tells an artist what he ought to be. But my point of view, my idea of art—which I do not propose to be universal—is that it must be affirmative. Life-affirming. I reject everything that is negative. You know, I don’t like Dostoevsky. Tolstoy is my writer. Gogol is my writer. I’m not a Joyce guy, thought I see he’s one of the great writers of the century.

HJ:   God knows, he’s not affirmative. But, wait a minute, Orson, what are you talking about? Touch of Evil is not affirmative.

OW:  Listen, none of my reactions about art have anything to do with what I do. I’m the exception [to my own rule]!  It doesn’t bother me, because it comes out of me. I’m dark as hell. My films are as black as a black hole. Ambersons. Oh, boy, was that dark. I break all my rules.

That’s One Way to Make a Movie… 

OW:  I don’t know how many ways there are to direct a movie, but let’s say there are a hundred. And mine happens to be, I direct a movie by making love to everybody involved in it. I’m not running for office—I don’t want to be popular with the crew—but I make love to every actor. Then, when they’re no longer working for me, it’s like they’ve been abandoned, like I’ve betrayed them.

On Media Memory, Age & Nostalgia. 

OW: If you see them at the right age, you see them differently. You see the real value of them, what they really are.

HJ:  It’s true—how you feel about a film has to do with how old you are when you see it.

OW:  In the theater, I can pretend that it’s all happening right there in front of me. But I see movies through such a mist of years, I am incapable of feeling the thrill of them, even the greatest ones, because I cannot erase those years of experience. I’m jaded. I know I don’t see movies as purely as I ought to see them. Before I started making movies, I’d get into them, lose myself. I can’t do that now. That’s why I don’t think my opinions about movies are as good as somebody’s who doesn’t have to look through all those filters. I think all films are better than we think they are.

On the Difference Between Actors & Stars.

OW:  Gary Cooper turns me right into a girl! He’s a great movie star, a great movie creation. That’s the thing about a movie star. We really don’t judge them as actors. They’re the creatures that we fell in love with at a certain time. And that has to do with who we want to have as our heroes. It’s absolutely impossible to have a serious critical discussion about enthusiasms for movie stars. Because a movie star is an animal separate from acting. Sometimes, he or she is a great actor. Sometimes a third-rate one. But the star is something that you fall for… I’ve always thought there are three sexes: men, women, & actors. And actors combine the worst qualities of the other two. I can’t go on waiting for stars.

On Contemporary Communism, the Red Scare, & French Politics. 

OW:  I think the French situation is very delicate. If the people who are now in government & television change… There’s a real fascist element rising in France. And because this is a socialist government—and of course, it’s nonsense to call [Jack Lang] a socialist—all the centrist conservatives are afraid, as they always are, that it is the weak wall though which communism will break. The French always put the blame on their president for everything that could possibly be wrong. So they may join them, even though the Communist Party has become a joke.
[Hedda Hopper] always said to me, “I know you’re a dirty Commie Red. But you were always good to me & my son & I won’t—” Then she added, “But you’ve got to stop fucking Lena Horne.” And I said, “I don’t take instructions about things like that.” And she said, “You have to, if you care about your career, if you care about your country!”  Nobody who knew about it gave a damn that Lena was black.  Except Hedda, you know. So I said, “Hedda, you can go boil your head.” She always laughed when I insulted her. That’s show business.

On Superstition.

OW: It’s often the people who are not religious who are the most superstitious. There are more clairvoyants in Paris than in any city in the world, four clairvoyants to one doctor, even though the French don’t believe in God. It’s the old Chesterton remark, “If you don’t believe in God, you’ll believe in anything.” It’s true. Because if you don’t believe in God, you will substitute every mystery that is outside yourself, however nonsensical it may be. And, of course, astrology is so maddening, because it was all laid down at a time when the planets were in another position. An Aries is now actually a pisces, and so on. I’m old enough to remember when people had their palms read, the way they have their charts done. And in palmistry as practiced in the West for the last two hundred years, every line in different from the old palmistry of the Hindus. The lifeline was here, the loveline there, but it’s still supposed to work. The place with the greatest number of believers in this sort of the thing is the Soviet Union, supposedly ruled by dialectical materialism. The hunger to believe has not been filled by Lenin, mummified in the Kremlin. The time may come when we’ll be able to live without mystery, but then we’ll have to question whether we’ll still be capable of poetry. It’s pretty hard to imagine—a world or an art without any kind of deception.