Henry Jaglom: The King of Spago

Maverick moviemaker Henry Jaglom teeters precariously close to mainstream recognition. Will his two new films be his breakthrough or seal his fate as a cult curiosity?


The night before the Oscars, Henry Jaglom was at his regular table at Spago (in the choicest part of the main room, along the window wall facing Sunset Boulevard) when he got a handwritten note, on a piece of yellow Post-It paper, reading, in its entirety: "HENRY HENRY HENRY/What's it all defined by, Henry?/D. Winger."

While Debra Winger is no stranger to existential questioning, her note had a more specific cause. Several minutes earlier, she had witnessed a piquant sight: that of a dozen or more well-upholstered be-hinds, many in Armani (Armani himself was present to savor the fact), upended in the Spago air, as their owners scanned the Spago floor, in a scene of Alexander Pope-like pungency, for Debra Winger's missing Armani purse.

Pope didn't occur to Winger, but someone else did. "Suddenly it struck me--I said, 'My God, I feel like I'm in a Henry Jaglom movie,' "Winger would tell Jaglom later. "You know, one minute it's serious, and the next minute it's completely bizarre. And as soon as I said it, the waitress said, 'Oh, he's here--he's down at the other end.' "

A few years ago, nobody would have known whom or what Winger was talking about. Nobody, that is, except a smallish core of Jaglom cultists and the largish group of Hollywood insiders who happen to be the director's friends. That situation has changed somewhat. Jaglom's now arguably the most successful independent filmmaker in America, and, in his own mind at least, the biggest maverick in Hollywood.

Let us assume, for safety's sake, that quirky, low-budget pictures about loneliness and relationships are not precisely your cup of tea. That such titles as Sitting Ducks, Can She Bake a Cherry Pie?, Always, Someone to Love, and New Year's Day don't ring a bell. That the tales of Jaglom's semi-legendary friendship with Orson Welles haven't reached you yet. That you live far enough, geographically or spiritually, from the network of art houses that give Jaglom his currency that you'd have to rent a Jaglom film to see one--if your video store stocked Jaglom. Well, with the success of Jaglom's latest picture, Eating--it was listed, reports Jaglom, for five weeks straight last spring as one of the top three movies in the country in terms of average per-screen gross--the director may be poised right on the verge of breaking through even to you.

Then again, Eating, with its all-female cast and specific focus on women's obsession with food, attracted a very specialized audience. The film's fans were equally female and obsessive: male attendance at the theaters around the country where the movie played was scanty, and repeat ticket sales were high. Soon, Jaglom will release Venice/ Venice, a more conventional love story-- more conventional, that is, in strictly Jaglomian terms. "Venice/Venice tries to take a look at love, the movies and quantum mechanics," Jaglom says.

We're in the nerve center of the Jaglom empire, the faintly seedy pink and rattan offices of his International Rainbow Pictures, in a white, '40s-style stucco building on western Sunset Boulevard. Jaglom is sitting on a low couch, looking sleepy. A pleasant-looking fiftyish man with a thinning V-shaped hairline, puffy eyes and sparse, high-flying, brows, he looks a little like an Upper West Side Marcello Mastroianni, a dissipated Manhattan boulevardier.

"An actor-director [played by Jaglom himself] is at the Venice Film Festival-- Venice, Italy--with a film of his," Jaglom continues. "A young French journalist [Nelly Alard], obsessed with the character he's been playing in his films, comes from Paris to interview him. When she arrives, she finds the reality quite different, and after a beautiful romantic interlude, she's disillusioned and runs away in the Venice rain. Three months later, she shows up at his office in Venice, California, and things are not what they seem to be. He's casting a movie, looking for someone to play his wife. All of life is real, and all of life is a movie. It's very hard to draw a line between the two, and that's what it's finally about." Certainly it's very hard for Jaglom to draw a line between the two: His movies are, mostly, about his own life and his own friends.

Now, a feature about quantum mechanics and film/reality distinctions might not draw obsessed audiences. And, next year, when Jaglom brings out Lucky Ducks, the sequel to his 1980 road comedy Sitting Ducks, he may find himself reverting to cult status. Jaglom describes the film thus: "It's a look at men's fantasies, a continuing search to understand what men want."

But then, you never know. His followers are legendarily passionate. A woman once left her job and her life in Boston to move to California to sit at the master's feet. His Can She Bake a Cherry Pie? was the official U.S. selection at the 1983 Cannes Film Festival. Likewise for New Year's Day at Venice in 1989. The Boston Globe declared Jaglom the winner when comparing Always (Jaglom's sometimes harrowing, sometimes comical, sometimes tiresome study of the breakup of his marriage, starring himself and his ex-wife Patrice Townsend) with Woody Allen's Manhattan. And Ingmar Bergman, claims Jaglom, named him--not, irony of ironies, Woody A., the Swede's most fervent admirer-- as his favorite American filmmaker.

Jaglom finds comparisons between fellow New Yorker Allen and himself superficial and irrelevant. "One," Jaglom says, "he seems to be a pessimist, and I'm an optimist. Two, he wants to be liked. I think every time he makes a movie that gets attacked, he then tries to make one for them. And some of these critics fawn over him in a certain kind of way, and that encourages him to do less than his best work." Non-fans declare Jaglom's movies--which are shot on a shoestring (and look it), and which usually feature not only Jaglom himself but his brother, Michael Emil, along with many non-actors--inconsequential, whiny and narcissistic. Woody Allen avoids (sometimes narrowly) these very adjectives by applying the high gloss of Art.

Art costs. Jaglom says he shoots his films for under a million dollars apiece. How can he do this? By hiding cameras in wheelchairs, for one thing. And he always shoots on real (read: cheap) locations, uses minimal equipment and pays his actors (both known and unknown) Guild minimum. He says he pays himself less than the DGA's rock-bottom--a fact, he adds, which once got him in trouble with that guild's board. All this, along with preselling video rights and doing his own distribution, allows him to make back several times his original cost.

Writer, director, editor, distributor, poster designer and, often, star of his movies, Jaglom has constructed a business which, if not formidable in size, nevertheless seems thoroughly impressive. "I'm the luckiest one I know in Hollywood, and I make money at it," he is fond of saying, in his rapid-fire Manhattan staccato. (Never mind the shaggy dog pacing of Jaglom's films--in person, only Scorsese talks faster.)

And, whatever the exact profitability of his pictures, here's the beauty part-- the money keeps rolling in. Hungary's buying Jaglom's pictures. Greece and Yugoslavia are buying. Spain. Britain. Mozambique! The Far East, never an easy market for art pictures, is beginning to budge. The world is opening up to the Jaglom vision.

What, precisely, is Jaglom's vision? Certainly, women are at the heart of it. The roman-fleuve of Henry Jaglom's life has a lot of women swimming around in it. Most of them are actresses. Brenda Vacarro was his first girlfriend, followed by Karen Black, Natalie Wood, Andrea Marcovicci, among others. The list is impressive but not staggering: unlike his friends Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson, Jaglom practices serial monogamy of a relatively cozy order. But there may be conditions. "He has never been attracted to women who have their lives together," says a female friend. "He is always Daddy to some extent. The romanticism is extreme, and sometimes I want to put my finger down my throat."

Still, he must be doing something right. Women never quite seem to get over Henry Jaglom. Even women who aren't involved with him. Candice Bergen, a friend for 20 years, admits she would never have finished her autobiography without his fond pestering. "Henry's a great confidant of women," she says. "He's also a straight confidant, which is unheard of." "Henry interests me," says ex-wife Townsend, who speaks with unflagging warmth of the man she divorced nine years ago. "He interested me 24 hours a day." "He helped me with my career enormously," says Marcovicci. "He convinced me that I was enough--I didn't have to dress up so much; I didn't have to put on so much makeup. He helped me lose 20 pounds."

"I got surrounded by women very early," Jaglom says. "My mother's friends. She played bridge." We're sitting in Mirabelle, a Sunset Boulevard restaurant where Jaglom eats the same thing for lunch (a sandwich known to the staff as Chicken Salad Henry) almost every day. He's wearing an odd, but thoroughly Jaglomesque, outfit: jeans, black Capezio oxfords with purple nylon support hose, work shirt with its collar flipped up, a flowered shawl draped over his shoulders, a little brown cloche-with-brim cap, which at first glance looks like waxed cotton, but which on closer inspection proves to be merely quite dirty.

"A lot of people don't like Jaglom," one Very Important Hollywood Lady tells me, with distaste. "He always wears this little hat. Maybe he's trying to be eccentric."

"Orson told me, 'Don't you know all movie directors should wear a hat?' " Jaglom says.

"Henry was always a very unusual guy," says Sally Kellerman, who's known

him for 20 years, and who starred in Someone to Love. "He liked velvet. He wore stockings."

"When I first knew him," says Candice Bergen, "he wore a ponytail, a short sort of badger coat, silk lavender socks, and those soft Capezio dance shoes. Henry didn't shrink from flamboyance."

"The ladies were always talking about things that were important to me--that I understood," Jaglom says. "Whose heart was broken; who was feeling what. And the men were all talking about business, money, power. So it became clear to me that I identified much more with the women--that what they were talking about was more interesting.

"And then as I started getting girlfriends, I liked what they were talking about more than the guys. I never got along as well with the guys in school, because they were talking about other things outside of themselves. Sports. Male combativeness. And the women, even as young girls, were talking about their internal lives. Well, I knew I had an internal life that I was needing to deal with. And men weren't dealing with it. So I just moved over to that side, and completely hung out with women. Women were never alien to me for that reason--I never felt like they were a strange species. Men were the strange species."

Jaglom finishes his sandwich. The waitress brings him a cup of steaming coffee and a glass full of ice. Among the ice cubes are nestled silver-wrapped chocolate-covered mints. "I like very, very hot coffee, and ice-cold mints," he says. "And they're nice enough to keep on a very hot burner for coffee, so it really burns my tongue; mints in the freezer. Harmlessly weird. I think it's called eccentric."

When I remarked to the actress Gwen Welles over an earlier lunch that Jaglom seemed to me a gentle man who loved working with women, she choked on her food.

Welles--no relation to Orson-- made her movie debut in Jaglom's first picture, A Safe Place, in 1971 (appearing along with Orson Welles, Jack Nicholson and Tuesday Weld), and stars in Eating. When she regained her composure, she said, "Henry's sets are just hysteria. There's a lot of tension. He uses tension to get what he wants.

He's right on top of you all the time, controlling and maneuvering you. I think he has a real mean streak, although he's not vindictive. He just goes off, like any hysteric. I call him a bitch."

Jaglom's method in casting Eating was to interview potential actresses (some of whom, like Welles, Nelly Alard, Lisa Richards and Mary Crosby, are professionals; some of whom were not; and some of whom, like Candice Bergen's mother Frances, were sort of in between) about their eating habits. The women were not supposed to know ahead of time what Jaglom had in mind--he likes keeping actors off-balance. But Gwen Welles, who found more than half the women in the cast for him, tipped them off and swore them to secrecy. When one of them eventually admitted the perfidy to Jaglom--he has ways to make them talk--he was delighted. "You manipulated me!" he said to Welles. "I can't believe you got away with it--it's so great!"

Sometimes, in directing a scene with two actors, Jaglom will tell one one version of what's going on and tell the other something else. It keeps things interesting. "Henry's idea of enjoyment in life is to find a combustible situation--to take people and then provoke them," says Bob Rafelson, an old friend. And for Jaglom, for whom the boundary between art and life is always narrow, this can backfire.

"I know some truly awful things about Henry, but I remain friends with him because I love him," says the actress Joanna Frank, the wife of Alan Rachins, of "L.A. Law." (Both starred in Always, which wound up getting Rachins his big break.) "He doesn't really have a sense of other people's feelings. In social situations he won't hold back from embarrassing people. That can be both good and bad, depending on who it is. He's absolutely fearless."

The semi-benign side of this is Jaglom's tendency to take the job of directing beyond the bounds of his sets. "He directs the parking attendants at Spago," Gwen Welles says. This is true. I have seen it. "I'm going to resist the temptation to direct the interview," Jaglom told me, early on. And resist he did--but not very hard. He directed me what to ask him. He monitored the workings of my tape recorder, and directed the waiter in a restaurant to turn off the vacuum cleaner so the sound level would not be affected. He directed me, in my rented car, to turn off the air conditioner. When his wife left him, in 1982, he put her in a movie about their divorce so he could re-direct her. "I thought I could get her back," he says.

How did the director get so directive? "I'm my father's son and my mother's daughter," he says. "My father is a very powerful man, a very sure-of-himself man, a man with incredible self-confidence," Jaglom says. "He has survived Communists and Nazis and wars and revolutions, and has always come out on top. A difficult man to have as a father, because he's enormously sure that he's right. Part of the way I survived the incredible power that came my way, with its certitude that it was right, was to become quite powerful in return."

The scion of a legendarily wealthy Jewish family in south Russia, Simon Jaglom lost all his property to the Communists in 1917, remade his money in international trade in the Free State of Danzig between the wars, eventually getting to New York, fortune intact, in 1942. He is still alive as of this writing, in his mid-nineties, and untempered by age.

"Henry's father was very European and charming--he would actually take your hand and kiss it," says Joanna Frank, who grew up ten blocks away from the Jagloms on Central Park West. "But he also ruled everyone with an iron hand," she says. "He brought up his boys with these aesthetic values"the family was reputed to have the most expensive art collection in New York"but he never gave them the freedom to enjoy them. As a consequence, I think Henry felt very thwarted."

"Being well-off was a complicated thing," Jaglom admits. "I don't like to emphasize it. Louis Malle has been in a similar kind of situation. I think people tend to think of you as a dilettante if you don't have to struggle to make a living and you make movies. For that reason my ego has been in proving-- probably unnecessarily to my own disadvantage in terms of the numbers of movies that I could have made--that I wouldn't take any support from my family. Though of course it helps you, because you don't have to take a job as a waiter."

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