By Scott Ross
Through the good graces of my best friend who, being a sensible sort, does not cling as I do to outmoded technology, I recently enjoyed Simon Callow’s reading, on cassette, of Kenneth Tynan’s diaries, as edited by John Lahr. In one early entry, Tynan is shattered to discover his notion of Orson Welles as the Compleat Artist is false: He’s just read Pauline Kael’s “Raising Kane” in the New Yorker, and declares that she “proves conclusively that Welles did not write one word of Citizen Kane.”
Kael, of course, did no such thing.
I am an enormous admirer of Kael’s, a zealot even; despite every effort, during her time at the New Yorker and since her enforced retirement (she had Parkinson’s) and her death, by others to discredit her, I remain steadfast in my belief that, whatever her flaws, she was, and remains, the finest movie critic not merely of her age but for any age. When she was wrong, however — and by “wrong” I do not mean, “I disagree with her opinion about X” — she was spectacularly wrong. And she was seldom more wrong than she was in “Raising Kane.”
Any essay critical of Welles — of whom, it should be noted, Kael was in fact a noted supporter — that uses John Houseman as its chief source is benighted from the start. One can easily imagine with what barely submerged glee Welles’ one-time producer (and long-standing enemy) related his version of events to Kael. Her own motives are less clear. It’s been suggested that she had Hollywood ambitions of her own, and that, in elevating Kane’s co-scenarist of record, Herman J. Mankiewicz, himself a former New Yorker critic, she was further ennobling herself, by proxy. Once the piece was published, and Welles’ friends and admirers had their say via Peter Bogdanovich’s “The Kane Mutiny” rebuttal in Esquire (a jeremiad reportedly revised by Welles himself) she rather uncharacteristically confessed her doubts about her original piece to her then-friend Woody Allen, and worried that she didn’t know how to respond. His advice: Don’t. She never did.*
Nor did she “prove” in any demonstrable, let alone “conclusive” fashion that Welles had nothing to do with Kane’s superb screenplay. A cursory look at any of the other movies he directed and for which he also wrote the scripts, by himself — which is to say all of them except Kane and the un-produced The Big Brass Ring — reveals Orson Welles’ “voice” as a writer, a style and set of preoccupations manifest in films as seemingly unrelated as Touch of Evil, Mr. Arkadin, The Lady from Shanghai, F for Fake and even what little has been seen, and heard, of The Other Side of the Wind. Only when he adapted the work of others (Tarkington for The Magnificent Ambersons, Kafka for The Trial and Shakespeare for Macbeth, Othello and Falstaff/Chimes at Midnight) is the sound of the dialogue not patently presented in Welles’ distinctive cadences as a dramatist. Although it is probably impossible at this juncture to definitively prove that Welles or Mankiewicz (or even, perhaps, Houseman?) wrote this or that line, or monologue, for Kane, the quality of that verbiage, and the observations, are of a piece with the dialogue in the pictures Orson wrote either alone or (in the case of the published screenplay for The Big Brass Ring) co-authored with his companion, Oja Kodar.† Or are we to believe he “stole” all of those credits as well?
But Welles was also notorious for his prevarications, and this habit of giving himself credit in the absence of anyone who might have contradicted him became worse with time. Even Kael acknowledged of Welles that, when an artist has been cheated, repeatedly, of his due, he may be prone to self-aggrandizement. Certainly, Welles must have grown as sick of having his work misinterpreted, and condemned, by ignoramuses as he became of being asked about Kane. It may well be, too, that Mankiewicz, with Houseman’s collusion, modeled more than a few of Charles Foster Kane’s biographical details and characteristic idiosyncrasies on Welles and that Orson in turn may have been too sheepish about them to object. Master showman that he was, he may even have acknowledged their effectiveness as part of the drama, if only to himself. It may not be true, as Welles told Bogdanovich, that the script of Kane was scissored-and-pasted from his own version of the script and Mankiewicz’s, or that Mankiewicz’s “contributions” (as Orson called them) were more significant in part than as a whole. Whatever the truth of it, the movie of Citizen Kane resounds with Welles, not merely visually or in the sound of the picture but in the shape and tone of the words themselves.
For his own part, Kenneth Tynan was a magnificent theatre critic, but a less reliable movie reviewer. Tynan’s rhapsody on the London production of Welles’ own, splendidly theatrical Moby Dick — Rehearsed makes one pine to have seen it. “With this Moby Dick,” Tynan wrote, “the theatre becomes once more a house of magic.” Of Orson’s debut in movies Tynan famously wrote, “Nobody who saw Citizen Kane at an impressionable age will ever forget the experience; overnight, the American cinema had acquired an adult vocabulary.”
So what did Tynan see in Kael’s misguided adventure to convince him that his idol had feet of clay? (It’s significant that, in speaking to Terry Gross about the second volume of his own Welles biography, Callow, the reader of Tynan’s diaries on tape, used the exact same words as the diarist when he proclaimed, equally fraudulently, that “Orson Welles did not write one word of Citizen Kane.”) Alas, the entry that records Tynan’s shock at seeing a lifelong hero reduced, as it were, to a rather fat heap of ashes, is all too brief. Tynan does not bother to note how Kael “proved” Orson’s claims of authorship false.‡
And in that, he resembles Kael herself, all too closely.
* Kael also seldom had a kind word thereafter for one of Bogdanovich’s pictures.
† Welles’ highly dubious but thoroughly enjoyable screen “memoir” The Cradle Will Rock script was likewise published after his death.
‡ Just as, in another diary entry, he quotes Gregory Peck at length, sneering at liberals and discussing his conversion to the true faith of conservatism, when it’s obvious to the reader that the man to whom Tynan’s had been talking at Hollywood party is Charlton Heston.
Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross