Bewildered by false tales circulating about his life, Orson Welles once came to a general conclusion: “I don’t think history can possibly be true!” (1) Of course, in the same interview, Welles claimed to be the great-grandson of Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy under President Lincoln, so he can’t be considered a completely innocent victim of historians. Even now, despite decades of often exemplary research – by Jonathan Rosenbaum, Catherine Benamou, François Thomas & Jean-Pierre Berthomé, and others – the complicated facts of Welles’ life continue to be obscured by his irresistible self-invented mythology and the popular counter-myth of a prodigy in a decline that knew no indignity.
Two entertaining new books of transcribed conversations with, respectively, his former headmaster Roger ‘Skipper’ Hill and the filmmaker Henry Jaglom, reaffirm Welles’ reputation as a great (if unreliable) raconteur and go some way towards unmasking the private man. The conversations date from the early 1980s as Welles, in weakening health, struggled to organise financing for a range of doomed film projects in Los Angeles. That was the unhappy end; Alberto Anile’s Orson Welles in Italy (translated from the Italian original of 2006) takes us back to the invention of Welles’ independent methods after the Second World War. Anile’s research into contemporaneous Italian sources adds degrees of nuance to a largely mythical period in Welles’ career.
Although Welles never finished writing a full-length memoir, on several occasions he accepted large advances for various autobiographical book projects (2). Like his fees for acting, voice-over work, and presenting television commercials, the money helped pay his considerable expenses and fund his independent projects. “I’m negotiating a new contract for a book,” he told Roger Hill on the night of his death in 1985. “I really need to write volumes 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 of my memories [sic.] to make enough money to finance my movies!” (3) Others paid back the advances when the books failed to materialise.
Welles was also interested in how a well-timed book might alter the public conversation. As his friend Peter Bogdanovich recalled, “the often grossly inaccurate stories and exaggerated legends told of Welles’ exploits made it that much tougher for him to work as a filmmaker” (4). Badly researched or even vindictive books by Charles Higham and John Houseman, and Pauline Kael’s now-discredited New Yorker essay ‘Raising Kane’, had damaged Welles’ reputation in the early 1970s; he needed counter-punches more substantial than op-eds under Bogdanovich’s by-line. Yet, for a predictably complicated variety of reasons, none of these varied book projects were finished in Welles’ lifetime. Bogdanovich’s interviews, conducted between 1969 and 1972, perhaps the earliest stillborn book project, were finally published as This Is Orson Welles in 1992. As edited by Jonathan Rosenbaum, it is still unsurpassed as a first-hand discussion of Welles’ work (5).
The Hill and Jaglom transcripts have been salvaged from much later publishing projects and focus on more personal recollections. The circumstances of the Jaglom recordings are controversial. Two of Welles’ closest associates, the late cinematographer Gary Graver and late producer Alessandro Tasca di Cutò, claimed Welles was taped secretly for years. Welles only discovered Jaglom’s deception in the last week of his life and was, according to Graver, “very mad about that” (6).
Unfortunately, Peter Biskind’s dismal introduction to My Lunches with Orson, a lazy rehash of old myths and misinformation, fails to directly refute these accusations. Biskind simply states that Welles requested the recordings to help him prepare a memoir: “His only proviso was that the recorder be out of sight, concealed in Jaglom’s bag, so he didn’t have to look at it” (7).
Whatever the truth of the matter, Welles certainly approved the same sort of arrangement with Roger Hill. In the early 1980s Hill was preparing a revised edition of his memoir One Man’s Time and Chance (1972); Welles was toying again with a book, apparently now at the urging of celebrity agent ‘Swifty’ Lazar. Welles allowed Hill to tape their telephone conversations to gather material for their respective books (no ambiguity here – Welles jokingly calls Hill a “CIA man” (8)). Hill was retired and widowed in Rockford, Illinois. Welles divided time between a home in Los Angeles with his collaborator and companion Oja Kodar, and another in Las Vegas with his third wife Paola Mori and daughter Beatrice. The transcripts begin in 1982 and end on October 9, 1985. That night – his last – Welles admits feeling “disastrously old”, speaks of reluctantly refusing to play Caliban to John Gielgud’s Prospero, and is still referring to the allegedly duplicitous Henry Jaglom as “my friend” (9).
Todd Tarbox’s Orson Welles and Roger Hill: A Friendship in Three Acts is superbly edited from these years of telephone transcriptions and other relevant documents – public speeches, private letters, and Welles’ youthful journal entries. Presented in the form of a play script, the book is a delightful and amusing record of intelligent conversation, a moving testament to Welles’ longest friendship.
In the autumn of 1926 Welles enrolled at the Todd School for Boys in Woodstock, Illinois. He was eleven years old. Roger ‘Skipper’ Hill would assume ownership of the school from his father outright in 1929. “The first time I saw you,” Welles tells Hill, “you were walking up a snowy sidewalk, in the late fall, just before Halloween, with your open galoshes flopping and rather too much hair for those days, looking artistic and rather brigandish. It was then that I declared to myself that I would make that man my friend no matter what the price” (10). Welles had lost his mother at seven, and his father would die an alcoholic death just after Christmas, 1930. The Shakespeare- and Bible-quoting Hill became another of Welles’ surrogate fathers along with Maurice ‘Dadda’ Bernstein, the Chicago doctor who gave his name to the character in Citizen Kane (Welles, 1941).
Recollections of the Todd School more than fifty years later evoke a paradise precisely suited to a boy of Welles’ staggering gifts. The privileged and progressive school offered sailing (Hill’s passion), flight instruction, travel, and, most importantly, dramatics. In photographs, the young Orson is often exultant, despite his considerable family problems. Welles even wrote the boosterist text of the school’s catalogue Todd: A Community Devoted to Boys and Their Interests: “Todd is a bustling bee hive of activity from dawn until dark and, for some of us, on into the night. Skipper tells us there is no joy compared with having accomplished something worthwhile with your hands or your brain and we have found he’s right” (11). With the Todd Troupers Welles would stage numerous productions including his graduation extravaganza The Winter of Our Discontent, an amalgam of Henry VI and Richard III. This was a preliminary second part of Welles’ epic Five Kings. The first part, focusing on Falstaff, was produced on stage in 1939 and eventually became Welles’ film masterpiece Chimes at Midnight (1966) (12).
Welles briefly studied painting at the Art Institute of Chicago and then bargained with ‘Dadda’ Bernstein for a solo painting tour of Ireland. Here is the myth, oft-told by Welles: turning up at the Dublin Gate Theatre in the summer of 1931, Welles persuaded director Hilton Edwards that he was already a star on the New York stage. Somehow he immediately landed the part of Duke Karl Alexander in Jew Süss and stayed on in Dublin, a star of the theatre. “I’ve been working my way down ever since,” Welles would later quip in his essay film F For Fake (1973). Meanwhile, back in America, Roger Hill was promoting Welles to Cornell College: “Nearly everyone connected with the arts, the opera, or the stage in Chicago knows him and they have all done their best to spoil him, but I think he is very sound and very sensible, although he is definitely talented to the point of genius” (13). But by then Welles was already off and running, untamable by college or institution of any kind, and living it up in Ireland (to Jaglom: “These great, marvelous girls in their white petticoats, they’d grab me. Off the petticoats would go. It was as close to male rape as you could imagine…Then the girls would go and confess it all to the priest, who finally said to me, ‘I had another confession this morning. When are you leaving?'”) (14). Despite a life thereafter of almost constant work and travel, Welles was rarely out of contact with Hill. He returned to Todd in 1933 to stage Twelfth Night with the current generation of students, including Hascy Tarbox, Hill’s future son-in-law (and the father of Todd Tarbox). In 1934 Welles brought Hilton Edwards and actor Micheál Mac Liammóir from Dublin for a “Summer Festival of Drama”. Welles collaborated with Hill on the publishing series Everybody’s Shakespeare (1934). He continued to visit the students at Todd.
At the same time came Welles’ incredible run of directing achievements: the ‘Voodoo’ Macbeth in Harlem for the Federal Theatre Project (1936); Marc Blitzstein’s leftist Cradle Will Rock and Julius Caesar as a fascist allegory (both 1937); the Mercury Theatre’s War of the Worlds for CBS Radio (1938); finally, Citizen Kane (1941). Welles’ career in Hollywood after Kane was turbulent and distracted: active in progressive politics as a campaigner for Roosevelt and a public crusader against fascism abroad and at home, he was also an irrepressible bon vivant and (from 1943) the straying husband of Rita Hayworth. He was not liked by the new regime at RKO Studios, and following the commercial failure of The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) and the cancellation of his anthology film It’s All True, unable to find work as a director for several years. None of his subsequent Hollywood films escaped studio interference. After splitting from Hayworth, mired in tax problems, and with the blacklist looming, Welles fled to Europe in 1947.
Alberto Anile’s Orson Welles in Italy clarifies many events of 1947 to 1953, years too often reduced to entertaining anecdotes (15). To the book’s translator Marcus Perryman these were “the most adventurous and uncertain years of Welles’ film career, characterized by continuous roaming in Italy, Europe, and North Africa” (16). At this time Welles invented his own unique method of low-budget independent filmmaking that set the template, for better and worse, for most of his career thereafter.
He arrived in Rome in November 1947 to star in Gregory Ratoff’s Black Magic (aka Cagliostro) for a fee of US$100,000 (17). The first American co-production to roll in postwar Rome, the film was produced by the American independent Edward Small in collaboration with Commendatore Michele Scalera, “one of the most powerful and revered cinema producers in the Kingdom of Italy,” (18) whose fortunes had declined since the fall of Mussolini. The film was shot at Scalera Film Studios (while Cinecittà was still occupied by postwar refugees), the Castel Sant’Angelo, and also in the Quirinale as the postwar Italian constitution was about to be signed. Welles was allowed to direct his own scenes; Ratoff could do little but go along with the arrangement.
In residence at the Excelsior Hotel on the Via Veneto, fodder for the press as Rita Hayworth’s estranged husband, Welles was soon visiting Pope Pius XII (who inquired “Is Irene Dunne really going to have a divorce?” (19)) and photographed eating pizza with the leader of the Italian communist party, Palmiro Togliatti, who called Welles “the cleverest American I’ve ever met” (20). Welles was admirably heedless in the age of the communist witchhunt. He was also prone to such unhelpful bon mots as “Italy is a nation of actors, the worst of whom you can find onstage.” He was photographed by Irving Penn with leading intellectuals at the Antico Caffe Greco, but never accepted as part of their circle. “I had a great week when I arrived for Black Magic with every intellectual in the world,” Welles told Bogdanovich, “and after that I became nobody because I lived there” (21).
There’s an evident truth to Anile’s claim that “a biographer who knew no Italian would find it very difficult to write about the period” (22). In addition to interviews with now-deceased or elderly collaborators, much of Orson Welles in Italy draws upon the ephemeral newspapers in which ideological wars were fought over cinema. Most Italian critics loathed Welles from the start. The Marxist Guido Aristarco, writing under the pseudonym Roberto de Paolis, dismissed Citizen Kane without having seen it (he simply repurposed the words of his 1947 review of The Stranger) and accused Welles of being a drunk (Welles sued him for the latter). “Driven out of America for his left-wing sympathies,” writes Anile, “in Italy he was criticised equally by the Marxist left and clerical right” (23).
Again and again Italian critics misjudged Welles’ work within the limited ideological frameworks of Marxism and Neorealism. Welles was too formalist, too baroque. Citizen Kane, often debated in the newspapers, was mostly unseen because of the outrageous indifference of RKO’s Italian subsidary; two protesting journalists were informed by the studio, “the less films of this sort are seen the better: they ruin the public taste” (24). A subtitled Kane premiered in Milan in May 1948, allowing Aristarco to reprint his pre-emptory review under his own name. The film played for just three midweek days in Rome in 1948. It was later shortened, dubbed, and shown for a few days each in Milan and Trieste as Quarto Potere. Welles’ other films were almost as ignored in Italy. The Magnificent Ambersons, released back in the summer of 1946 in tandem with a documentary on the Bikini Atoll, had played a week each in Rome and Milan. The Stranger created little enthusiasm at the Venice Film Festival in 1947 without Welles present.
Welles returned briefly to Hollywood to edit the first version of his low-budget Macbeth. He took the film to Venice in August 1948. Initially in competition with Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet, Welles scandalously withdrew his film at the last minute, sensing critical prejudice and imminent defeat (years later, to Jaglom: “Larry is very—I mean, seriously—stupid….” (25)).
Welles was contemplating several new projects including a Cyrano de Bergerac for Alexander Korda, The Emperor after Pirandello’s Enrico IV, and a documentary about the circus. Welles’ explanation for the decision to commence with Othello (Welles, 1952) was Commendatore Scalera’s enthusiasm for Verdi’s opera. Anile confirms that Scalera wanted to produce the film in Italian for bureaucratic and financial reasons. But Welles pressed on with his vision regardless, shooting tests in Venice after the festival and designing sets in Paris with Alexander Trauner. In between this work he ran off to Vienna to shoot his part in Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949), which made him a European star.
Split from Rita Hayworth, Welles had become obsessed with Lea Padovani, a young actress with a “face like a spoon” (26). The affair was doomed. To his aristocratic associate Alessandro Tasca di Cuto, Welles despaired: “I knew one day something of the kind would happen to me, but I never imagined it happening while I was still young” (27). A bedroom farce ensued as Padovani delayed consummation while secretly cavorting with Othello‘s production manager Giorgio Papi – a good context in which to make an Othello (Padovani was the first of four Desdemonas).
Welles began shooting in Mogador (now Essaouira) in Morocco in June 1949. He’d visited the country earlier that year to perform in Henry Hathaway’s The Black Rose (1950). Welles’ low-budget essay Filming Othello (1978) (28) regales with such mythical anecdotes as the non-appearance of costumes in Morocco due to Scalera’s bankruptcy. Welles tells how he came up with the alternative of staging the murder of Roderigo in a Turkish bath, therefore requiring only towels. Anile reaches deeper into the sources to credit Trauner with this brilliant solution. Welles’ old friends from the Dublin Gate Theatre, Edwards and Mac Liammóir, were not paid for years. Production was repeatedly halted and the cast and crew stranded in hotels while Welles ran off to perform in films for large fees. He funneled his earnings back into the project, his customary practice thereafter. Orson Welles in Italy untangles the details of the immensely complicated four-year production with precision. The advantages of Anile’s access to obscure Italian sources is sometimes offset by a disregard of English-language records. And the occasionally interspersed interview transcripts allow subjective and sometimes bitter accounts to stand as definitive. In an interview with Alvaro Mancori, an uncredited cinematographer on Othello, we read that Welles spat pumpkin seeds at Suzanne Cloutier, the final Desdemona, during takes (“He knew what the camera would and wouldn’t pick up” (29)). This seems uncharacteristic. Welles always claimed to treat actors well. To Hill: “Anybody who has to perform in front of the public is treated with great deference. I take it out on poor assistant directors, and usually for the benefit of the actors, to show them what they could be getting” (30).
According to Mancori, Cloutier requested a few days leave from the set to visit her ailing mother in London. Welles refused, even though Cloutier had no scenes scheduled. She went to London anyway, at Mancori’s quiet suggestion, only to run into Welles himself at a restaurant. Mancori remembers, “So he walks over to her and starts beating his fists on the table…Welles continues to pummel the table, to push it towards her and she goes on crying.” The actor Peter Ustinov, who happened to be in the same restaurant, angrily intervened. Later, back in Italy, Welles turned his fury upon Mancori. Ustinov, now romancing Cloutier, arrived in Venice, learned of the pumpkin seed incident and chased Welles around the set with a chair. Mancori’s account of the restaurant argument seems mostly hearsay, presumably based on what Cloutier had told him; in his autobiography Dear Me (1977) Peter Ustinov claims to have been asked by his agent to “look after” Cloutier in London while she secretly acted in another film and hid from Welles’ representatives (she had not yet been paid for her work on Othello). Then the pair improbably ran into Welles himself at a restaurant. Ustinov recalls: “[Welles] was perfectly charming, surprised to see her, and asked kindly how she was. The small talk bore no trace of malice nor of any desire to implement a contract, and all Suzanne’s efforts to appear frightened could not turn Orson into the Svengali he patently had no ambition to be” (31). Ustinov was enchanted with the fairy tale-besotted actress (“even if one never quite knew when to reach for a pinch of salt,” he writes) and would later marry and divorce her.
Othello was the first Welles film since Citizen Kane to be released in a director’s approved cut (in fact, Welles created a number of different versions of the film). After years of unorthodox stop-start filming and editing, mostly in Morocco and Italy, Othello was inevitably a patchwork of different film stocks and locations. But somehow, through the consistency of Welles’ vision and technical genius, it worked. The film shared the Palme d’Or at Cannes in May 1952, but hardly in triumph. According to Anile, Welles was “booed and jeered off the stage” (32).
In the early 1950s, Welles had a roster of planned projects – Capitan Noe, Salomé, Mr. Arkadin, Julius Caesar, Benvenuto Cellini, and Operation Cinderella – but, as Anile writes: “The six films he had scripted remained without backers and Welles was forced, yet again, to turn to acting to fund his projects” (33). The Padovani farce over, Welles married Paola Mori (daughter of a contessa), who would star without much distinction in his fascinating but disastrous production Mr Arkadin (1955). Welles lived some of the time in Italy after 1953, usually at the Mori villa in Fregene outside Rome (Fellini was a neighbour). In Fregene he installed a Moviola presented by Daryl F. Zanuck as payment for an appearance in John Huston’s Roots of Heaven (1957). Welles used the machine to edit his self-funded Don Quixote, shot in various parts of the world in the 1950s and 1960s, taking the long-term Othello patchwork method to even greater extremes (a universally loathed version put together by Jesús Franco was released posthumously in 1992). By 1960 Welles was impatient with Rome (“It’s turning into Philadelphia with spaghetti” (34)). The family relocated to Franco’s Spain a few years later.
Apart from a brief return to the United States to direct Touch of Evil (1958, another studio-butchered masterpiece), Welles was finished with Hollywood’s methods. His later productions, scrapped together with his own money and financing from many sources, would usually be seen to completion, at least until the late 1960s. Remarkably, Welles managed to attain final cut on every completed film in this later period: The Trial (1962), Chimes At Midnight (1966), and The Immortal Story (1968) for French TV. Thereafter Welles only succeeded in finishing two film essays, the masterful F For Fake and the little-seen Filming Othello. The independent thriller The Deep (shot 1967-69) was abandoned; The Other Side of the Wind (shot 1970-76) wound up in labyrinthine legal and financial entanglements (involving alleged fraud and the Iranian Revolution) that were not resolved in Welles’ lifetime.
Henry Jaglom was one of several young filmmakers who approached Welles around the time of his permanent return to the United States. He cast Welles as a magician in his 1971 directorial debut, A Safe Place. Later in the decade, amid the ongoing debacle of The Other Side of the Wind, Welles was living off the proceeds of television appearances, voice-over work, and commercial endorsements. Jaglom began to act as Welles’ agent. Intriguing projects – King Lear, The Cradle Will Rock, The Dreamers, and an original screenplay The Big Brass Ring – were mooted but for various reasons failed to go into production.
In My Lunches With Orson, Welles plays up to his delighted younger acolyte and outrageously insults a number of vintage Hollywood personalities. Welles is also less than generous to some of his friends and collaborators, including John Huston, the never-paid yet enduringly gracious star of The Other Side of the Wind (“His first picture, The Maltese Falcon, was totally borrowed from Kane,” Welles says unconvincingly. “It was made the next year, you know” (35)). Perhaps the worst treated by the appearance of My Lunches With Orson is Peter Bogdanovich. In the wake of his brief Hollywood success (The Last Picture Show (1971), What’s Up, Doc? (1972), and Paper Moon (1973)) Bogdanovich is said to have invested something like $500,000 in the never-completed Other Side of the Wind. By the 1980s he was in considerable personal turmoil and heading towards bankruptcy. By then Bogdanovich and Welles had drifted apart but Bogdanovich remained a loyal public champion. Here, at lunch with Jaglom, Welles casually makes fun of Bogdanovich’s narcissism and calls Dorothy Stratten, Bogdanovich’s Playboy Playmate girlfriend who was murdered by her estranged husband in 1980, a “semihooker” (36). Ironically Bogdanovich, following Welles’ gracious public style, insisted on the deletion of Welles’ nastier and ribald comments from This is Orson Welles. At the time Bogdanovich reflected, “Orson used to say there were enough critics around, artists didn’t need to add to their number” (37).
It is inconceivable that Orson Welles would have wanted these candid conversations published in this form (to be fair, the same might be said of the gentler but more intimate Roger Hill transcripts.) The lure of bitchy celebrity gossip has turned My Lunches With Orson into a bestseller, although there is more of value to be found in both books of conversation. Welles is not just a great filmmaker, but one of the twentieth century’s most remarkable personalities, and his exploits are fascinating in the realms of both myth and fact.
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Orson Welles and Roger Hill: A Friendship in Three Acts by Todd Tarbox (BearManor Media, 2013).
My Lunches With Orson: Conversations between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles. Edited and with an introduction by Peter Biskind (Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt, 2013).
Orson Welles in Italy by Alberto Anile (translated by Marcus Perryman). (Indiana University Press, 2013).
- The Dick Cavett Show, 27 July 1970. Available on The Dick Cavett Show: Hollywood Greats (Shout Factory DVD).
- Welles received a quarter of a million dollars from McCall’s according to Peter Bogdanovich’s introduction to Rosenbaum, Jonathan (ed), This is Orson Welles (Harper Collins, 1993), xxvii.
- Tarbox, 292.
- Rosenbaum, xix.
- Another collection of previously published interviews from various sources is Orson Welles: Interviews, edited by Mark W Estrin (University of Mississippi Press, 2002).
- from Lawrence French’s ‘An Interview with Gary Graver and Oja Kodar’ in Graver, Gary & Rausch, Andrew J., Making Movies with Orson Welles (Scarecrow Press, 2008), 161; “What ultimately really enraged and shocked Orson was discovering that whenever he met Jaglom, the latter had taped all their conversations without telling him.” Tasca di Cutò, Alessandro, A Prince in America (PDF ebook at www.smashwords.com), 117.
- Biskind, 24.
- Tarbox, 31.
- Tarbox, 282, 294.
- Tarbox, 135.
- Tarbox, 6.
- Tarbox claims that the 1931 school performance was already titled Five Kings, but this is inconsistent with other sources that give it as The Winter of Our Discontent.
- Tarbox, 12.
- Biskind, 43.
- Ciro Giorgini’s Rosabella: la storia italiana di Orson Welles (1993) is the documentary equivalent of this book and the inspiration behind it.
- Anile, 1.
- Welles was not, as implied by Anile, dodging rumours of involvement in the Black Dahlia case; Welles’ involvement in that murder was a far-fetched theory proposed in the late 1990s by Mary Pacios in Childhood Shadows: The Hidden Story of the Black Dahlia Murder.
- Anile, 31.
- Tarbox, 259.
- Anile, 30.
- Rosenbaum, 76.
- Anile, 2.
- Anile, 306.
- Anile, 88.
- Biskind, 38.
- Anile, 140.
- Anile 132.
- Orson Welles’ last completed feature film is not legally available at present. It was apparently planned as far back as 1951 (see Anile, 227).
- Anile, 178.
- Tarbox, 173.
- Ustinov, Peter, Dear Me (Atlantic-Little Brown, 1977), 257.
- Anile, 261.
- Anile, 267.
- Orson Welles: The Paris Interview (Kultur Video DVD)
- Biskind, 130.
- Biskind, 243.
- Rosenbaum, xxxi.