Orson Welles: Thalberg was the biggest single villain in the history of Hollywood. Before him, a producer made the least contribution, by necessity. The producer didn’t direct, he didn’t act, he didn’t write—so, therefore, all he could do was either (a) mess it up, which he didn’t do very often, or (b) tenderly caress it. Support it. Producers would only go to the set to see that you were on budget, and that you didn’t burn down the scenery.
Henry Jaglom: Didn’t the other studio heads interfere with their directors?
Orson Welles: None of the old hustlers did that much harm. But once you got the educated producer, he has a desk, he’s gotta have a function, he’s gotta do something. He’s not running the studio and counting the money—he’s gotta be creative. That was Thalberg. The director became the fellow whose only job was to say “Action” and “Cut.” Suddenly you were “just a director” on a “Thalberg production.” A role had been created in the world. Just as there used to be no conductor of symphonies.
Henr Jaglom: F. Scott Fitzgerald must have been impressed by him, to make him the model for The Last Tycoon.
Orson Welles: Writers always fell for his shtick. Writers are so insecure that when he said, “I don’t write, but I’ll tell you what’s wrong with this,” they just lapped it up. By the way, there were better scripts written, on the whole—this is a generalization, but it’s my opinion—even when writers considered that they were slumming by coming out here. Faulkner and everybody. “We’re going out there to get some money.” Still, they did an honest job for that money, because instead of going back to their little place up in the Hollywood Hills to write their scripts, they had to eat with each other every day in the studio commissary, which made for a competitive situation.
Henry Jaglom: But Thalberg was also creative. At least from Fitzgerald’s point of view.
Orson Welles: Well, that’s my definition of “villain.” He obviously had this power. He convinced Mayer that without him, his movies wouldn’t have any class.