Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles, On Screen: A Safe Place and Someone to Love
Henry Jaglom directed Orson Welles in two films, his debut, 1971’s A Safe Place, and Someone to Love, Welles’s last screen appearance. They’re essentially bookends to the friendship of the two men. In addition to showing Jaglom’s evolution as a filmmaker, they give a sense of Welles’ aura, the sheer presence and enduring gifts which prompted Jaglom to step in as his manager and pursue funding for projects in his later years.
A Safe Place runs on the magnetism of Jack Nicholson, the charm and energy of Tuesday Weld at the height of her beauty, and an almost cryptic performance by Welles. The film is a rich, impressionistic portrait of the relationship between Fred, played by Phil Proctor, and Noah, played by Weld. Jack Nicholson’s Mitch lurks around the edges as a more daring, less reliable alternative to Fred. Jules et Jim it’s not, but it’s also apparent that Jaglom was after something different.
Jaglom takes numerous risks here as a first time director, not the least of which is forgoing linear narration. The vision is his own, though it might never have been realized without a bit of unlikely advice from Welles. Peter Biskind records the exchange in his introduction to My Lunches with Orson. Welles came to Jaglom during a break:
“You’re the arrogant kid who pushed me into this. How’s your arrogance doing?”
“Not very well. The crew hates me. They’re totally negative. Everything I tell them to shoot, they say, ‘It won’t cut,’ or ‘it’s not in the script.’ I have to fight to get every single shot. I’m exhausted.”
“Oh my God, I should have prepared you. Tell ‘em it’s a dream sequence.”
“Just do as I tell you. Trust me. You trusted me enough to hire me. Do it.”
Jaglom took Welles’ advice and got results. He went back to Welles:
“What the fuck is this? Everything I want to do, I say, ‘Dream sequence,’ and they’re pussycats.”
“You have to understand, these are people who work hard for a living. They have tough lives. Structured lives. They work all day, then they have dinner, put their kids to bed, go to sleep, and get back to the set at five o’clock the next morning. Everything else in life except for dreams has rules.”
Whether Welles’ explanation is an apocryphal tale or a true story, Jaglom came away with a film much closer to his original vision than he likely would have after fighting the crew for every shot in the nearly two-hour feature. There are still missteps here, but not significant enough to outweigh the considerable good. The sound is poorly dubbed. The arc of Weld’s Noah is credible only because Phil Proctor lacks any semblance of charisma. Perhaps that was Jaglom’s intent, but it makes her interest in him all the more puzzling. Yet it remains a worthy film, a document that appears to predate Jaglom’s full commitment to the serendipitous approach that has so divided viewers of his later films. Certainly it prefigures his intense focus on female characters in his later work, albeit with more conscious artifice. It’s also, perhaps not coincidentally, the only of Jaglom’s films chosen as part of the Criterion Collection.
The other bookend of the Jaglom/Welles years is Someone to Love. The two men came to be friends after A Safe Place, and their relationship moved beyond mentor and mentee thanks to Jaglom’s active career as a director, as well as his work on Welles’ behalf as a sort of unofficial agent. Welles still had ambitions to direct. He and Jaglom had drummed up some interest in a Welles-directed King Lear, and another film to be called The Dreamers. In the meantime, he did voice-over work, some commercials (too few, he felt), and the occasional film role, often forgettable turns like Judge Rauch in Butterfly or Sheriff Paisley in Hot Money. Jaglom was among those who didn’t lose faith, and his actions publicly and privately made that apparent.
As for Someone to Love, it’s evidence Jaglom is either self-indulgent or sensitive and brilliant. He’s probably both, and one needn’t rule out the other, though the scales tip toward the former here in a way they didn’t in A Safe Place. The performances here feel forced and amateurish at times. Jaglom’s brother, credited as Michael Emil, often seems pained to be on camera. The timing of lines – not only comic ones – is just off on multiple occasions, mostly rushed. Jaglom himself, credited as Danny, appears self-conscious on screen, particularly when he first enters the theater his brother has bought and quickly resold. This is made worse by the awkward handling of the art-versus-commerce divide between Danny and his brother. It feels almost like the foundation for a polemic. The relative success of the film depends upon the viewer’s threshold for Jaglom’s off-the-cuff method. It serves him well at times, and at its best there’s something elemental to Jaglom’s work, some confluence of the probable and improbable. But Someone to Love can feel overly long. What was originally conceived as a party too often ends up in dialogue that’s earnest and unremarkable. The exchanges between these unattached people aren’t as sparkling or memorable as the back-and-forth between Jaglom and Welles, the best of which is reserved for the last quarter of the film.
Welles is a sort of touchstone for Jaglom’s Danny, offering observations like “A story isn’t old-fashioned. You’re simply looking for it. The minute you find it, you’ll be happy. Get up on the stage, get your lights on, get your people in, and let’s see some of that Danny magic.” The lines appear pedestrian on the page, but Welles has almost an oracular presence, calling out insights from the back of the theater. “I’m speaking from the cheap seats, not from Mount Sinai,” he says at one point, but between the richness of his voice and the quality of his observations, there’s no doubting his authority.
In his contribution to The Film That Changed My Life, Henry Jaglom celebrates Fellini’s 8 1/2. Shortly after directing Always, Jaglom saw Fellini on a plane, but he couldn’t muster the nerve to approach him. He imagined telling Fellini about his film, and the great director seeing it and praising him. “It was a really strange, strong regret I had when he died,” Jaglom notes. He can’t possibly feel such regrets where Welles is concerned. “Henry and I are girlfriends,” Welles said once, in reference to their friendship defying the generation gap between the two of them. It sounds flippant but there was a definite bond, one which no doubt meant a great deal to Jaglom as a young filmmaker finding his way, and to Welles as a great talent, shunted off to the margins as if he’d never done anything more notable than some minor confection, years earlier. In Someone to Love, Danny proposes a party with hopes of finding someone for his brother to love, a problem he says many of his female friends face as well. No doubt Jaglom himself faced that dilemma at some point, Welles too, but between the newly released book of conversations between Welles and Jaglom, and these films, we must consider the longevity and sustaining quality of the relationship the two of them shared. Someone to Love was Welles’s swan song. Leaving aside the idea of Welles himself behind the camera, no one but Jaglom could rightfully have directed it. Whatever its shortcomings, Someone to Love defies the notion that either man lacked that in the presence of the other.