In anticipation of Casablanca’s seventy-fifth anniversary this year, I’ve made a sustained attempt to reappraise the significance of the film and its illustrious afterlife—in particular how the film, which involved so many European-refugee actors and studio professionals, resonates in the current political climate, with the increasing turn to the right, toward protectionism and isolationism, and a global refugee crisis of a similar scale. But in searching out some of the lesser-known, and least likely, voices on the subject, I’ve been reminded of another critical reappraisal of the film, one that dates back several decades and that hasn’t really received much attention.
Tucked away in My Lunches with Orson, those delicious recorded snatches of midday schmoozing between directors Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles (edited by Peter Biskind and published in 2013), is a late chapter titled “Gary Cooper turns me right into a girl!” in which Welles admits, among other things, his hidden affection for Casablanca. The recordings took place at Wolfgang Puck’s Ma Maison, in West Hollywood, in the early 1980s, by which time the once-towering American auteur was approaching his final years; after a string of box-office disappointments and financial hardships, he was notoriously crotchety about all things Hollywood. At different points in his conversations with Jaglom, he skewers the producer Irving Thalberg, snubs Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, throws shade at everyone from Bette Davis, Laurence Olivier, and Joan Fontaine to Woody Allen and Marlon Brando, and expresses untrammeled contempt for Hitchcock’s Rear Window, Ford’s The Searchers, and Polanski’s Chinatown. All of which makes his fondness for Casablanca, the seeming apogee of classical Hollywood and “the most decisive exception to the auteur theory,” as Andrew Sarris once called it, that much more surprising. Read More