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Welles tapes provide portrait of the artist as an old man

By Laurie Bennett

July 1, 2013 at 11:51am

For Orson Welles, as for many a wunderkind, early success became a burden with age.

Tape recordings recently made public reveal his bewilderment about later professional and financial struggles, and his resentment toward other Hollywood legends.

As the Guardian reports:

Laurence Olivier was “stupid”, Spencer Tracy “hateful” and Charlie Chaplin “arrogant”, and he could not even bear to look at Bette Davis. James Stewart was a “bad actor”, Joan Fontaine had “two expressions, and that’s it”, and Norma Shearer was “one of the most minimally talented ladies to appear on the silver screen”.

The tapes were made as Welles spoke to a friend, director Henry Jaglom, in preparation for an autobiography. They provide the basis for a new book, “My Lunches with Orson,” by Peter Biskind.

The lunches, at the Hollywood restaurant Ma Maison, occurred almost weekly in the final years of Welles’s life.

During one session, Richard Burton approached the table and asked if he could introduce Elizabeth Taylor. “No,” Welles snapped. “As you can see, I’m in the middle of my lunch.”

He showed a special animus for actor John Houseman, a former Mercury Theatre colleague who was popular with advertisers. Welles is quoted in Biskind’s book as saying:

Houseman has had twenty commercials on camera. I’ve had one. I’m in terrible financial trouble‚Ķ. If Wesson Oil would let me say that Wesson Oil is good, instead of Houseman, I’d be delighted, but nobody will take me for a commercial‚Ķ. A real mystery: why they prefer Houseman, with his petulant, arrogant, unpleasant manner.

Welles died in 1985, before he could edit the tapes, which then sat in Jaglom’s garage for years. Now the transcripts provide what the New Yorker describes as “a shocking vision of the aging but still cunning lion in a very, very cold winter.”

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