The man behind Citizen Kane told an old friend his feelings about the talent — or lack of it — of big-screen legends like Spencer Tracy, Laurence Olivier and Bette Davis.
Previously-unknown recordings of lunch conversations in the 1980s with his friend and director Henry Jaglom have been dusted down and edited for a book that will hit the shelves later this month.
Much of the focus is likely to be on Welles’ disparaging remarks about fellow Hollywood stars, made in the two years before his death in 1985.
On Humphrey Bogart, he referred to the Casablanca star “picking fights in nightclubs”, Olivier’s first scenes in King Lear for the BBC he describes as “the worst things I ever saw in my life”, and Charlie Chaplin is branded as “arrogant”.
On Marilyn Monroe he said: “She was a girlfriend . . . I used to take her to parties before she was a star . . . I wanted to try and promote her career. Nobody even glanced at Marilyn.” When he pointed her out to Darryl F Zanuck, the movie mogul said: “She’s just another stock player. We’ve got a hundred of them.”
For Spencer Tracy, there appears to have been a particular venom.
“I’m having a hard time trying to think of a great Tracy performance. He was gigantic in Judgment at Nuremberg.” But he said he “couldn’t stand” those romantic Katharine Hepburn “things”.
“He was just a hateful, hateful man.”
For another on-screen duo, whose partnership was equally famous off-camera, some of Welles’ most insulting comments were reserved. The book reveals an interruption of one of the conversations by Richard Burton, who approached saying that wife Elizabeth Taylor wanted to meet him and asked if he could bring her over.
“No. As you can see, I’m in the middle of my lunch,” was the curt reply.
After Burton “backed away like a whipped puppy”, the director continued his tirade.
“Burton had great talent. He’s ruined his great gifts. He’s become a joke with a celebrity wife. Now he just works for money, does the worst shit,” said Welles.
Film historian Peter Biskind, who edited the tapes for the forthcoming My Lunches with Orson, said they are clearly the views of someone talking to a friend and free to gossip. He told The Observer newspaper that listening to the conversations between Welles and Jaglom is like sitting at the table.
They also reveal his views on fellow director Alfred Hitchcock, of whom he said he has never understood “the cult”.
“Particularly the late American movies... Egotism and laziness..... I saw one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen the other night,” he said of Rear Window.
“I’ll tell you what is astonishing,” he continued. “To discover that Jimmy Stewart can be a bad actor . . . Even Grace Kelly is better than Jimmy.”