Orson Welles: I Never Promised You a Rosebud

Orson Welles

Boscutti - Orson Welles - Actor Orson Welles on location with Tuesday Weld on A Safe Place

1970 New York magazine profile by Julie Baumgold on Orson Welles working under neophyte director Henry Jaglom who is making his first movie

Tuesday Weld tosses her head. There’s a small tempest of blond split ends.

The man with the clapboard runs in, clacks it in front of Orson Welles’ face, runs out and drops to an immediate crouch. Very still.

“Tell me a story,” says Tuesday, peering at the magnificent hulk on the rock beside her.

“Somewhere in the world there is a city that contains all cities...” says Orson Welles, sending private sonic booms of Jewishness through the wires to the director’s headset.

Immediately the sky cracks open. A savage glare streaks through the dun. Regular God-of-Vengeance bolts are coming now and huge plops of rain, pocking the duck pond.

The actors move for the plastic blankets. But the director is impatient. They are wasting the frenzy. He sends them back to the rock. Tuesday’s long white maidenly dress turns limp and sheer against her flesh. Welles sits immobile, gloriously roughed up from above, a cranky barbarian idol you tiptoe past, depositing your piece of worship, and leave relieved.

“Look at the sky,” the director calls. Welles raises his head and bellows, “God. God. God.”

And yes. Welles stops the storm.

A little overdue action from up there. Harking, at last, to the master of the hoax. It’s none of this mongrel magic like pulling dollar bills from Tuesday Weld’s hair or levitating silver balls that he has been doing throughout the filming of A Safe Place. No, this is real, and Welles is laughing. He walks over to the camera and the rapturous crew, the ego crusts washed off. The pouches under his eyes spilling sweet stores of sweat and rain. “This is the greatest day of my life. If this had happened on a movie of mine, I wouldn’t just be standing here. Be excited, Henry”, he says to Henry Jaglom, his stunned director. And in the care going back to the Essex House, “God must really love you, Henry. He would never have done that for me”.

Little bits of Henry Jaglom’s 32-year-old life came up into his throat and kicked around there as he stood outside. Orson Welles’ door at the Plaza a couple of months ago at midnight. Like the first time he met Jerry Lewis and Lewis kept handing him a cigarette, making him reach for it, then drawing back finally reaching forward, deliberately cracking the cigarette in half and dropping it into Henry’s hands. The time Henry walked into the screen room to edit Easy Rider. Vomiting in the Peruvian Andes... things like that.

Orson Welles emerged from the Plaza chiaroscuro in deep blue silk pajamas. Henry has been warned that Welles has no interest in acting in a movie made in America. Also out of the question was anything with sex or any part not written down. Welles stood there in the doorway, looking at Henry in his jeans and workshirt and Gucci bracelets in the same way he occasionally looks at a cigar ash which has spilled on his suit.

That night Henry said, “I want to persuade you to act in a movie that I have written and I am directing even though you have never heard of me and it is a part not written on paper but one we must create.” As Henry tells it, “Welles got up off bed and I was sure he was going to throw me out and I got mad. ‘Shut up and sit down and listen. I’ve flown all the way from California just to talk to you and you are going to give me an hour and then you can throw me out’. ‘Go right ahead’, Welles said, sitting down and folding his arms, ‘but I’m not going to listen’. I told him he would be someone who does not exist except in the mind of a young girl who needs him. ‘What the hell are you talking about?’ Welles said. ‘That’s why it can’t be written on paper’, I said. I was so desperate that I created on my feet, there and then, the part of a lapsed rabbi from a family of ‘wonder rabbis’ – I always thought there was something very Jewish about Welles – a man who never quite made it and came here to become a chess burn living off the few dollars he wins at chess and cheap magic. He believes he could do real magic if he can only do one thing. ‘What? I had no idea, of course, so I said, ‘I can’t tell you that now’. And then it occurred to me. ‘He makes himself disappear.’’Can I wear a cape?’ Welles asked.”

At the end of a day on the chess mound, the men lift their elbows off the little newspaper pillows, pack their plastic castles into paper bags and leave the park. The carousel hurdy-gurdy surrenders to beer-sponsored rock at the Wollman rink. The park is taken over by its Levi’d nightlords. It is twilight now. Half the mound is roped off where they are filming A Safe Place.

By dramatic rights Orson Welles should be approached through some elaborate cluster of bodies and objects like the great hall of statuary in Citizen Kane, the hundreds of burning candles in The Trial. Here, perhaps, among 1,000 chess players. Because he is always, as Cocoteau described him, “a solitude surrounded by humanity”.

Orson Welles gets up from a red bench and there is a stir of people turning sideways, pulling in limbs, the crew leaping backward in their sneakers as though the man could scorch. Welles stands in the waiting room of his own greatness, a man who has done the Big Thing. Maybe a man has only one empire in him, one Big Thing. If so Welles did his Big Thing 30 years ago. Now, a branded genius, he is wrapped in the automatic majesty of the Big Man. Borrowing further from the “great bastards” he has left crumbled in their fabulous ruins: Kane in his unfinished Xanadu, O’Hara in the smashed Hall of Mirrors, Falstaff, Othello, Macbeth, even Edward Rochester, blind in burned-out Thornfield.

Orson Welles roars – sitting still and silent. Rising up from the character of the battered old Jew. The pale eyes are concentrated as those above a surgical mask. Without makeup, he has this perfectly ordinary face: a highland boy with turned-up nose, a giant soiled Wisconsin cherub under the gray beard. His small feet are tucked under him, the ankles rolling over the leather. Across the chess table from him is a tiny Jewish ancient. A petrified quiver of a man, 60 years an actor, who is to play chess with Mr. Welles. He is there as a human prop, a tool for Welles to work with. He will be edited out of the film, but neither he nor Welles knows this.

Welles is given some chess pieces and asked to set up his game for the next shot. He says he can’t.

It seems strange that Orson Welles doesn’t know chess. Somehow, just as one thinks of Robert Mitchum frozen in some blue neon back room, his exhausted eyelids hooded over a colossal poker bluff, one sees grandmaster Welles in a leathery club gloating ten moves ahead over his endgame.

Welles, at the end of his first day of shooting, has made it clear he is on the wrong side of the camera. “He hates being an actor: he fights the process”, Henry Jaglom says. And if a movie set is a temporary country, a director is a permanent dictator. Dissolve the country and he searches out another. And then there is that wonderful time of lighting it and building it and peopling it and the obedience – it is so quick, so sure. Without his country, his stockpile of obedience, a director is usually cranky, and Welles is a director.

Somehow every other director is a usurper, and here is Henry Jaglom, bounding around in his white Caperzios, throwing handfuls of crushed rice cakes down his throat. With his pony tail, his cultured jeans, Mighty Mouse watch and $1 million from Columbia Pictures. Plus the holy rights of Final Cut and Autonomy – rights that have kept Orson Welles on his knees in the money temple for 30 years, rights that no UCLA student or former film critic would consent to work without today.

Henry is an actor who once psychedout in a movie called “Psych-Out.” Who spend six months blazing like a rhinestone for Screen Gems. Who went to Peru to film a bit in Dennis Hopper’s “The Last Movie” equipped with 40 cans of Chicken of the Sea tuna and 30 cases of Almond Joys. After a few desperately sick days Henry punched his fist through a glass door to get at the company doctor who had refused him medicine and wound up in a healing week-long orgy of room service at the Fontainebleau in Miami. Henry’s biggest credit, however was a part in the editing of “Easy Rider,” that great blaze on the torch of the nightgowned Columbia Pictures nymph. It was “Easy Rider” which lead to Autonomy-Final Cut deals for Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson and Henry, mostly under the aegis of Bert Schneider (middle son of Abe, President of Columbia Pictures), who is producing Henry’s film. Bert Schneider, creator of the Monkees, producer of “Five Easy Pieces” and “Drive,” a man who looks like a hearty Peter Fonda, is the perfect producer for the new directors in that he understands, says yes, and disappears.

So easy. While Welles is down on his knees in the temple. A jilted god. Eight films in twenty years – only once with the right of final cut. “After Citizen Kane,” the Big Thing, there remain only pieces of exploded genius ego. A celluloid triangle of films unfinished, disowned, canceled. And Welles, who has hustled moguls all over the world for money, had his office bugged by Harry Cohn, sold his God’s-own-voice-over voice to Eastern Airlines, a South Seas travelogue and his most recent self travesty, an album called “The Begetting of the President.” Magician of the makeshift, obliged to be inventive against unnatural obstacles that money could have solved. Always in exile, in transit.

It has not been an easy day.

After refusing to work the day before because his props weren’t ready, Welles called Henry that morning at two to quit.

“I did a strong number on him and told him that he didn’t work today. I’d see to it that he wouldn’t work for the next six or seven years. He’s so damn insecure, but of course he needed money,” says Henry.

And so Welles appeared. Fluffing, balking, refusing to look directly into the camera because he said it was the most revealing thing an actor could do.

There on the mound Welles bumped right up against that other great twentieth-century victim of precocity, Tuesday Weld, the original sixteen-year-old sinner who was always going on thirty in her mount. Just another Hollywood ponytail doing movies like “Rock Rock Rock!” and “Sex Kittens Go To College” before crawling out from the vivacious vacuity to become a Real Actress in “Lord Love a Duck” and “Pretty Poison.” Ironic, these two in a movie whose theme is the unwillingness to be reconciled to the loss of childhood.

Tuesday and Welles do a scene. She drifts in like a flower wilting, trailing her lightly bitten nails over Welles shoulder. She leans down and he plucks a dollar bill from her hair.

The scene is done again and again, as everything has been that day. Welles is enraged that they are being given equal treatment. He is a star in a character part, only there for a week; she has the rest of the picture. So he has spent the day crowding her out of shots, walking in front of her, pushing her back to the camera. When the camera is on her, he plays the scene badly. When it is on him, he plays it well. He keeps wanting her to exit so that the shot will end with him looking after her. Orson Welles does not like to be seen walking away.

Orson Welles also does not like anything in his line of vision. He stops, enraged, because he can see Tuesday brushing her hair. Finally Henry has to use two cameras. He keeps one on Welles, sneaks the other on Tuesday.

At the end of one scene Henry says to Welles, “You over-acted that”.

“Don’t forget this is your first movie, Henry.”

“Yes, and yours was ‘Citizen Kane’.”

Part of what Henry is filming is Loose Movie Soup. The idea is to have people kind of dropping in around the camera and chatting it up, being their own Fabulously Interesting Selves. Then Henry throws in someone else and they all chat it up – the Russian professor from the University of Tennessee, the Israeli seaman, the Peruvian female photographer who is dressed like a train conductor, the speech therapist from Brooklyn who tells about her two imaginary childhood friends. All of them looking into the camera, heads usually cocked into artistic wistfulness, telling their stories, script less, makeup less in a kind of supreme Warholian flounder. And if the great god of vibes is good they will reach the full fever pitch of some heavy, all-night discussion held in the University of Pennsylvania dorms in 1951, or in the lobby of the Turista Hotel in Cuzco, discussions which Henry will never forget.

It is not necessary to have actors for Group Movie Soup, just these Fabulously Interesting People with their Real Faces. Of course, one peril in using amateurs is having the Russian professor from the University of Tennessee suddenly mention the director’s name in the middle of the take (“Don’t ever say ‘Henry’, Jim”). Well, too bad.

What about acting? It has become reacting. Right back to all those Actors Studio improve classes. Spontaneous response. The cult of Chance and Accident. A climate of mystification, in which almost no one has read the script except the director – a fact which lends him definite authority and omniscience.

Good Loose Movie Soup is made to work in the editing room. While the producer who has promised autonomy stands and chews his cavalry twill cuffs out in the hall, the director puts the bits together like Susan Alexander in Citizen Kane doing one of her mammoth jigsaw puzzles.

Henry Jaglom has worked with Tuesday, a professional since she was six, to get her into the Soup – to rid her of her trained rigidity and makeup kit. “He actually got her working without makeup”, is repeated all over the set, in some kind of New Hollywood litany. In six weeks of throwing people into scenes like so many won-tons, he has brought her to a looseness where she asks, actually asks, to work without rehearsals.

Just at this point in her spiritual development Welles arrives, a perfectionist in this mass wing-it who is known to have directed himself through 78 takes of one scene before being satisfied, and then doing two extras to be sure. Yes Welles appears carrying a black granular leather-bound script. Insisting that his long monologues be blocked out on idiot cards. He takes one look at the newly unfettered Tuesday and says; “I think I’ll play this scene with the Tuesday Weld system: Winging it.”

For Henry, Welles’ way just isn’t life: “Welles is one of the best examples of a false way of working where things are structured, disciplined and organized. He is without spontaneity; an accident throws him. He works better with a piece of glass than a person”.

So Welles is not only a dictator without a country, but a reactionary. Forget his deep-focus lens, the modern-dress “Julius Caesar,” the all-Negro “Macbeth,” the overlapping dialogue, the telescoped time elapse. Forget the fact that Welles was into the buddy system with the Mercury players – using his manager, chauffeur, cook, secretary and public relations man in “Journey into Fear” (1942), upsetting his actors so they could give spontaneous performances in “The Lady from Shanghai” (1948).

Welles and the young Winger are side by side in front of the pony rides at the zoo. Welles is staring into his idiot cards, talking and talking, but no sound seems to come out. The great tunnel boom slips into his beard, travels into his wallet pocket mike, through his vest down his left leg, strapped with silver tape, into wires on the ground to the man with the headset and tape recorder and to Henry. The scene ends.

Welles, the best guardian of his own specialness, usually manages to vanish after shooting, standing over to the side watching for the crowds to clear. But now he is trapped. They are coming at him, holding out those little white scraps of paper. The civilians, as he calls them.

Welles gives them a look that would stop the King family from breeding. But they still come.

For them, Welles’ Big Thing was scaring half the people in the state of New Jersey (and a fair part of the whole country) out of their minds with the prospect of Martians trampling their Easy-Grow lawns. Gulling them, in fact, so you’d think that they’d be ashamed to admit it. But no, they’re proud. It seems wherever Welles goes there’s one of them, some definite New Jerseyite, his plaid sports shirt unbuttoned to show a dashing inch of Fruit of the Loom, coming at him clutching the wrong piece of his past. It usually begins like this.

“Jees, Mr. Welles, I can remember when you scared me out of...”

And Welles sits there confronted with this discharge of his glory, this easy part, this cheaper dazzle.

Sometimes the buffs were worse. Those earnest filmic creatures with their dank Elgin pallors and camera of eyeballs. They usually turn up with one of the little fascinating filmic mutilations in mind. Welles braces himself, one of his four public expressions sliding over his face: the Suffer the Little Creatures To Come Unto Me; the Hearty Brusque; the Great Protective Bland; and the basic Beat It, Kid look.

Then, too, he has developed a television persona. No longer is he the token dramatic voice paraded out to the single spotlight with his abridged Shakespearean monologue. He has become a sort of populist intellectual scaled down and muted so the box can contain him, suddenly acceptable.

90 minutes on Dick Cavett, guest host on the David Frost swivel chair, swiveling to Norman Mailer and conducting this perfectly David Frostian (temporarily quash the ego) interview, only occasionally bursting forth.

Welles gathers himself into the green Rebel station wagon which rolls through throngs of oblivious kids. At lunch he often goes back to the Essex House, which is fringed with the autograph claque waiting for “Tuesday”, as they refer to her, implying great stores of informal friendship. Welles is staying at the Essex House with his Yugoslavian mistress, Oja, in an adjoining room. She is never seen. The door is always closed and the only evidence of her existence is the occasional food tray in the corridor showing signs of a mild appetite.

Henry walks through the zoo where he used to go when he was a rich little boy in New York, following bums around to stuff a dollar in their pockets. “This movie gives me a chance to play with my life as a toy”, he says.

This day is going better, for Welles and Jaglom have made a pact. Welles can do any scene as many times as he wants until he feels it’s right. He has control over how it is shot. “He was astounded”, Henry says. He said no one had ever offered him that before. Welles will also be allowed to tell some of the long stories he has wanted to get into movies for twenty years. Henry intends to cut them out.

A marmalade orangutan shaped like a diseased persimmon sites with her hand in her lap looking at Welles. Welles squints. Pinches his face. Then relaxes. As though in a primal struggle with demonic bathroom problems. He is trying to make the animal disappear.

The ropes are up. The zoo crowds are tight and hot and silenced. Children nudging against their legs.

Between takes they find out the movie’s name, identify Welles, feeling in this way that they, the herds, can own a piece of the special beasts.  There are all these metaphysical cages to deal with – the animal in his cage, Welles in his cage of wires and excess flesh, the crowd behind the ropes.

The crew is in a pit inside the Ilama cage shooting through the slimed-up bar. Welles is telling an informal version of Noah and the flood.

“Orson – er, Mr. Welles, if you could just get up”, says Henry.

A man holds the idiot cards.

“I like the cards to go too fast. I see them at a glance. I haven’t had four years of the Dean Martin Show three times a year for nothing”.

A pigeon flies down and perches at his feet. In the line of vision. “Beat it, pigeon,” he thunders.

Welles tells Henry to get his earphones on. Tells the camera it could be closer. Changes words in the script.

“It’s all right, the zebras can move all they want,” he shouts at the keeper.

“Can we open our minds to a thought? It’s not that I care but...”

“I haven’t got the guts to ask for another iced coffee, but if I hope and pray.” Welles’ seventh iced coffee is brought. He stretches out his arm and a technician is there to take the burning cigar. He holds out the mirror for Tuesday to comb her hair. “Now that’s what I call class, Orson Welles holding your mirror,” he says.

During one take Welles turns towards Tuesday, flings one leg over her and starts to straddle her.

“Cut”.

The crowd gasps. The crew laughs. They love him – expert to expert. “He could belch and it would be the world’s finest belch”, is the general attitude. The crew in their complicated mechanical world of dials and meter and lenses and filters and rolls of silvery magnetic tape are caught in the hostile gusts of Henry’s fantasy. Here among the clappers of clapboards, holders of reflectors, manipulators of shadows, masters of camouflage, spinners of wire, gaffers, sound mixers and grips, is a private unionized short-haired magic. Men who cannot understand fantasy. The crew are men who need order, and somehow in the chaos, the filmic brilliance, and the authority that is Welles they find it.

Henry Jaglom: “We are rolling.”

Orson Welles: “Yes, but the word is ‘Action’ when you want to go.”

Welles belongs in a palanquin on the sweaty shoulders of young cinematography majors. At the very least he deserves a Nubian or two following him around with a perpetual bench and a fan fronds. The afternoon of the storm Welles arrives at the duck pond and makes for a bench in the shade. Two men are sitting on it and Welles presents himself standing between them. One moves over. Welles gives him another look. He moves over further. The man looks ready to bolt. He fidgets around in his pocket, ruffling Welles, finally pulls out a scrap of paper and passes it to him. Welles signs his name. They still haven’t said a word.

The first takes are M.O.s (mittout sound), as they say. To set up the focus, the doubles for Tuesday and Welles are posed out on the rock in the duck pond having their second-rate charisma metered. Now Welles is out on the rock saying, “Reach into my pocket”. Tuesday draws out a glass globe of New York with all the postcard buildings together under a silver sequin snowstorm.

“Henry, you’re stealing from the best,” says Welles.

The cameraman is upset that one of the shots is not going to match – that the whole damn movie, in fact, will never come together in the cutting room. Later Welles tells Henry his method for dealing with crews: “When they give you trouble, just answer those c--- s------ in monosyllables – ‘This is the dream sequence’ or ‘This is the fable sequence’ and be done with it. Never try to explain. I have a formula that I use: MP/YP. My Problem, Your Problem. It’s your problem to shoot, my problem to use.”

Jewishness has settled on Orson Welles. Persecution becomes him. Huge moral weights seem hung, talith-like, from his shoulders. He looks ready to argue obscure Talmudic interpretations while winding his phylacteries and taking his tea from a glass. His suit, severely crumpled from the previous day’s storm, has the exact Hasidic shabbiness of a voyage, shoulder to frock-coated shoulder, in a ship’s hold. He walks along with his script and his Dunhill Shakespeares ($32.50 a box). He lowers himself onto the bench, barely seeming to suppress the oys of muscular fatigue, and sits apart saying his lines to himself with the hand gestures and shoulder action appropriate to persecuted people, tempering the joy, tempering grief into a series of shrugs.

He tells a long story about a rabbi and a cantor. “What then?” is the punchline. He repeats the words, his voice roaming over them, mournful, triumphant, questioning, turning the little knobs in himself. The voice slightly up in joy. Reform, Conservative, Orthodox. Vocally traveling from Poland to Russia, the wandering Jew who can tell you great, life-changing stories.

The black couple lounge against their pram. They are both Flaunt-It-Baby lean and liquid, dressed all taut and snappy in high colors. The woman’s shirt is tied up high under her breasts. The man’s shirt says ART BOREDOM in two-inch-high capitals. Between them and Orson Welles is a kind of wary recognizance. Art, boredom, reactionary, irrelevance and We-Are-Our-Own-Show, Man plus kind of normal desire to stare. The rest of the bandshell area of Tompkins Park is filled with a scrabble of mongrel dogs. Welles has come down off the stage and is standing in front of the graffiti.

The stage is wrong for the illusion he wants to do, a hideous green men’s room-tile mosaic flanked by dirty doors. He stand there as a man beside the open hood of a Rolls-Royce – helpless before the collapse of a fine, expensive piece of machinery. All the mechanics of his illusion are fully displayed. Hanging out, as it were. He demands the area be cleared.

Welles agrees to stay over till they can find a better location for the trick, though this was to have been his last day. They do a couple of retakes of one of the monologues. Finally, on the ninth take he decides he just can’t look into the camera:

“I don’t believe the Jewish delivery is to anyone. It’s Biblical, angular, to the ground.”

A loud voice is coming from the crowd. This is part of the danger of using public places and making them private. An angry black man is just not having any of it. “Hey, man – this is my park. I got a perfect right to go where I want. No, I won’t be quiet. I’m going to say exactly what I want.”  He does.

Orson Welles watches, waiting to do his job.

“If I could only do here what I did in my bathroom at six this morning I’d have Oscars reaching from here to...” Just imagine – Welles in the roseate dawn davening into his Essex House mirror. His face lathered up, stropping his English razor while the elusive Oja drifts around him. And the deep Jewishness of his voice, heavy as a block of halvah.

Tuesday is excused to her “air-conditioned depositorium,” as Welles calls it, so “you can prepare to drive me mad later this afternoon.” Welles is doing a story that he always wanted to do in a film. Henry is appeasing him, but he will cut it out of the picture.

“Burdens, burdens. Young and beautiful, old and rich. Burdens is when you have a director that doesn’t say ‘cut’”.

Welles on his last day is downright jolly, even making jokes: “You know the story about the man on the park bench. A pigeon craps on his hand. He turns to the man next to him and says, ‘And for other people they sing.’”

Right in the center, the hully-gully heart of the earth bowl, Orson Welles works his magic. It is unbearably poetic. The deep green end-of-day stillness, the silent crowds fringing the hills and the magician in the very center.

The whole scene reflects off a silver globe shimmering in the dusk, rising up out of the old man’s carpetbag. Rising to his hands. Being banished and summoned. Hovering tremulously midair. Rising, swooping. Welles makes Biblical sweeps, fluttering his thick fingers.

“Oh, heavy, man. Far out,” says a young Farmer Gray type. He is naked except for a pair of brown overalls spilling rolls of slack flesh out the sides and he is focused in tight on that silver ball. A communal rapture rises from the hills. The kids on their way to a rock concert have found magic.  They are all kind of strung out and pulled into that silver ball. Hyper-paranoids, washed in a stoned benevolence, they have found that magic is a safe place for their heads. Taught to look by a 21-inch box, they can see what the camera sees, squeezing out of the frame the two men up on ladder holding the tungsten wire that supports the ball, doing a mad parody of Welles’ actions.

“Cut! You must let me cut because I know the routine,” Welles says. At last, he is directing. “Let’s not have any civilians touching that wire”.

Suddenly with that tribal talent that can hear the plugs on the amps being socketed, the kids run to line up for the concert. The meadow is almost cleared.

They are doing that last scene.

“That was fan-tas-tic,” says Tuesday, cradling the silver ball.

“End-sticks,” says Henry. The man with the clapboard bangs it down. “We’re wrapping.”

Welles shrugs, weary with the trickery, the impossibly beautiful sham instead of the final magic to restore his powers.

Henry cuts. Welles shakes hands with the crew, looking carefully for anyone he may have missed. Tuesday hugs him. Henry thanks him almost humbly.

A few days later “Citizen Kane” is shown on television, ridden with commercials, some of them advertising a hollow little movie so “important” that it would be shown without commercial interruption.


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