My Lunches with Orson is a classic film fan’s dream come true…partially. The book contains the transcripts of Henry Jaglom’s lunchtime conversations with Orson Welles that took place during the last three years of his life (the last conversation took place five days before Welles’s death) with topics ranging from the reception of Citizen Kane (1941) to his attempts to get flailing projects off the ground (including an adaptation of King Lear) to his relationships and friendships with many of the Golden Age elite. Here, Orson comes across as a man whose stature, breadth of knowledge, and controversial tastes (he hates on Charlie Chaplin and Powell and Pressburger with equally sharp eloquence) have produced a pompous and curmudgeonly shell designed to protect his extremely fragile ego.
For instance, Welles repeatedly reports not watching a whole lot of films anymore (at the time, he reported to be more interested in theater) because he was worried that watching another director’s good film would put him into a depression. This resentment seems to have bled temporally backwards as he reports that he “never understood the cult of Hitchcock. Particularly the later American movies. I don’t recognize the same director!…Egotism and laziness. And they’re all lit like television shows….I saw one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen the other night. Hitchcock’s movie where Jimmy Stewart looks through the window?…Everything is stupid about it” (165). He then goes on to blast the acclaimed Vertigo (1958), claiming that the Master of Suspense had gone senile and often fell asleep when people were talking to him.
He treats many beloved greats with similar distain, claiming that Charlie Chaplin was not only defensive about employing gag writers but that the silent comedian also stole Monsieur Verdoux (1947) from him (Welles allegedly wrote the script and was supposed to direct before Chaplin’s obsession with self-credit took over) and that Peter Bogdanovich’s embrace of the auteur theory – particularly when applied to Sam Fuller and Josef von Sternberg – was “nuts” (88). The end result is a book that’s difficult to put down thanks to equal parts scorn and arrogance. It’s like reading Orson Welles’s version of a gossip rag and the result entertains while providing a portrait of the filmmaker, warts and all. However, it’s larger scholarly value is also questionable and this fault lies purely on Biskind’s end.
Telling, the design and marketing of the book depicts Biskind – like the book’s subject – as being equally self-obsessed. The book (and this could be the product of the publisher’s marketing team, not the author) essentially gives Biskind credit – his by-line on the cover is larger than that of Welles or Jaglom – for having a bunch of interns type up the transcripts from the interviews. Moreover, editing the transcripts together according to subject and writing a short introduction does not make Biskind “America’s foremost film historian” (as the back of the book bills him, a title that is sure to make any Media Studies academic roll his or her eyes). Essentially, the biggest failing of the book is that Biskind provides the bare minimum of context for these interviews (there is an appendix!). In order to deserve the credit the book/marketing team/publisher/author gives him(self), he should have attempted to fact check some of the claims put forward here and annotated them accordingly. For instance, was Welles correct in his account of Chaplin or was he simply serving up sour grapes? We never really know if Orson’s vision of Hollywood is just his own or if there is actually some truth in his tall tales.