“… everything as I see it is against him before he starts, but his courage, like everything else about him, egotism, generosity, ruthlessness, forbearance, impatience, sensitivity, grossness and vision, is magnificently out of proportion.” — Micheál Mac Liammóir on Orson Welles, Put Money in Thy Purse: The Filming of Othello.
By Scott Ross
6 May 2015 marks the centenary of the birth of George Orson Welles. I doubt there’s much, if anything, I can add concerning this essential American figure that others have not already observed — those who knew him and those — the lists intermingle — who have illuminated Welles’ importance by examining the contours both of his existence and the many arts to which he gave life, and in the service of which he imbued so much and received so appallingly little.* But in this life, one has touchstones: Those figures who serve as inspirations, whose artistry touches one in ways that may defy cold analysis but whose lives and work simply matter. In my own case, there are three such artists. Tennessee Williams is one; Louis Armstrong another; and Orson Welles completes the trinity. What grips me about Welles, aside from his accomplishments, which are self-evident (or should be but all too often, to the ignorant, are not) is how deeply he strove; how much adversity he faced, and how often; how high — despite all odds, and systems, and limitations — he aspired; and what altitudes, with all possible decks stacked against him, he so often obtained.
“I started at the top and worked down.”
— Orson Welles, F for Fake
I will not rehearse here the early triumphs, save to note that Welles started big; not merely in his theatre and radio successes, at an absurdly early age, but in the profession into which he stumbled, he said, out of necessity. Broke at 16, in Ireland where he’d gone to paint for the summer and desperate to avoid college in the United States, he presented himself at Dublin’s Gate Theatre as a noted American actor who, at liberty, would condescend to perform for these Hibernian provincials if they had any leading roles going begging. Micheál Mac Liammóir, who with his work (and life-) partner Hilton Edwards founded and managed the Gate, later claims to have seen through this charade, but the young Welles must have had something aside from his youth, height, bass baritone and oddly comely features (the latter accentuated by a rather sensual lower lip) for engage him they did, giving Welles an entrée in American theatre, courtesy of his Irish clippings. (He was far from stumbling into acting, however, for the theatre had been an important part of his life since at least early adolescence.)
At 24 he was on the cover of Time; at 25 the achiever of national — indeed, international — notoriety as the progenitor of a radio “hoax” that allegedly scared a chunk of a nation already made edgy by the rise of militant Fascism in Europe, nearly to death (see Brad A. Schwartz’s book Broadcast Hysteria for a through de-bunking of the myth); and at 26 in Hollywood, where, with much of his Mercury staff, he was about to make what for many years was called (by those who actually saw it) the greatest of all American movies.
By 27, he was, on the face of it, close to a has-been.
That, at least, is the legend. Or part of it, anyway. “What has he done since Citizen Kane?” was the cry, one which, with a slight variation in tense, has been the cry ever since. That legend, of course, omits two very important factors, the first of which is that there even was a Kane against which to compare the remainder of Welles’ career. (And what did you do at 26, mister?) The second is that he never stopped manufacturing wonders. Even if, as is my case, you don’t consider Kane the greatest of all movies — and I don’t know that anyone can make that distinction, for any picture — there is (if often in final forms that altered their maker’s vision, and even meaning) The Magnificent Ambersons, The Lady from Shanghai, Macbeth, Othello, Mr. Arkadin, Touch of Evil, Chimes at Midnight and F for Fake… not to mention his marvelously theatrical play Moby-Dick — Rehearsed, his fabled “home movie” The Other Side of the Wind, and all those acting jobs, some of them (The Long, Hot Summer; Compulsion, A Man for All Seasons) sublime, which he performed to keep the whole floating opera going. It was customary, during his later years, to chortle derisively, both at his commercial appearances for television and at the aging fat man himself, and that attitude, sadly, still obtains. Recently, in an online discussion of F for Fake, one especially pompous fool I knew slightly in college (and in which setting he was the same, merely younger) chimed in, snottily, with, “And then he sold no wine before its time.” And this man makes his living writing about movies.
And here, let us add a third factor (and perhaps a fourth) carefully and, I am convinced, deliberately, omitted from the usual discussion of Orson Welles: He was among the most radical of all filmmakers, domestic or foreign; and the means by which he operated were no less radical. Oja Kodar, the woman with whom Welles collaborated in life and in art during the last two decades and more of his life — and who was often, and even as recently as last year, condescending described in the press as “Welles’ girlfriend” — has often said that his life was a struggle against gravity. Gravity not merely as a force weighting down the spirit and the imagination, but keeping earth-bound too the available modes of expressing them. Film, for an artist, is the most unwieldy of canvasses, and the most expensive. Ironically, the collapse of the studios that could not contain, and did not care to employ, him, was a boon for just about every independent in the business except Welles. (Another fierce and iconoclastic independent, Samuel Fuller, had similar problems.)
As we are all either beneficiaries, or victims, of our times, so too was Welles. He was wed to film, to those costly spools of celluloid that had, first, to be purchased, then exposed, then developed, then edited, duplicated, dubbed and distributed. Were he operating now, with all the many and various available digital technologies at his command, half the battles he waged just in order to work would be virtually (no pun intended) eliminated. He would surely have been entranced by the freeing possibilities, and would, I have no doubt, have exploited them more ingeniously, and with greater wit and compassion, than anyone else around.
“I think I made essentially a mistake in staying in movies but it’s a mistake I can’t regret because it’s like saying I shouldn’t have stayed married to that woman but I did because I love her. I would have been more successful if I hadn’t been married to her, you know. I would have been more successful if I’d left movies immediately, stayed in the theatre, gone into politics, written, anything. I’ve wasted a greater part of my life looking for money and trying to get along, trying to make my work from this terribly expensive paintbox which is a movie. And I’ve spent too much energy on things that have nothing to do with making a movie. It’s about two percent movie-making and ninety-eight percent hustling. It’s no way to spend a life.” — Orson Welles, 1982
Those who know Welles’ work only casually maintain that his later years were “sad.” For we measure the movie artist in those expensive reels of film, and after F for Fake — itself so misunderstood and under-appreciated that the critical fraternity of the time ought, by rights, be called to account — there were no more. That we saw. And there’s, as they say, the rub. What the tut-tutters, both in sorrow and in derision, never know nor understand about Orson Welles is that, while he was deeply frustrated, which is indeed sad, he never stopped working on his own projects, which is not. And that is a mark not only of Welles’ restless prodigiousness, and his seriousness of purpose, but of how much he accomplished. Whether the results of Welles’ efforts were exhibited, or even completed, is of less importance, ultimately, than the fact that they were — that they existed at all.
If we look at Citizen Kane, not as the greatest, or even Welles’ greatest, but simply in its historical context, and if we know anything at all about the techniques then in vogue — and in danger of becoming ossified — in talking pictures, we can appreciate it for what it was, and for what Welles brought to the medium: The exuberance of a young man who did not understand the established rules, and who questioned why this or that had to be done, and why might it might not be done differently, and for whom his RKO contract, the subject of much envious teeth-gnashing, permitted his innocent, and joyous, expansion of the existing vocabulary. For it is that giddy experimentation, augmented to the utmost by Welles having the great good fortune of a collaboration with its cinematographer Gregg Toland, which makes Kane such a pleasure to watch.
But there is more to the movie than photographic innovation. There is, too, its aural perfection — its position as the first great feature by one of radio’s most significant practitioners. Pick almost any moment, at random, in Kane and recall what’s happening on the soundtrack; Welles not only affected the way talkies looked, but the way they could sound. Yet beyond that, too, is the screenplay, with its unusual, fragmented, structure, its use of the tropes of the medium (the March of Time newsreels in particular) and its lively admixture of history, comedy, melodrama and something dangerously close to real (and specifically American) tragedy. Pauline Kael called Kane “a shallow masterpiece,” and she had a point. Its swift (if not Swiftian) satire, its pell-mell early pace, its occasional caricature, all give the picture a certain insubstantial air. However, the dredged-up memories of its characters, which reveal, in the aggregate, a far more complex central figure that was the norm, add depth to the characterization of Charles Foster Kane, and to those who surround him. Welles’ original conception was, he said, more like the later Rashomon, in that Kane “would seem to be a very different character depending on who was talking,” whereas in the final version he was rendered less extreme, and more ambiguous. It is that very ambiguity which is a hallmark of Orson Welles’ cinema, observable in all of his best work, a fact that, along with a few other consistent themes and appurtenances, gives the lie to the old canard that Welles had no hand — or, if he did, a small, editorial one — in the crafting of Kane’s screenplay.
“I am a writer-director — with an emphasis on the former.”
— Orson Welles
Kael, of course, did more to roil those waters than anyone, and it must have galled Welles to see the Kane script in book form forever wedded to the essay in which Kael “proves” he didn’t write it. (Just as it would pain him, as it does many of us, to endure Time-Warner yoking all its home video editions of Kane with that spurious documentary The Battle Over “Citizen Kane.”) That Herman Mankiewicz had a hand in the picture’s creation is not debatable. And whether Welles wrote most of it, or only some of it, is less to the point than that he was — until his late collaborations with Oja Kodar, anyway — the sole author of every subsequent movie he directed, with the notable exception of The Stranger.† Do the anti-Wellesians think he somehow pulled it over on everyone (not least of all, himself) for the rest of his life, or that, as absurdly, he miraculously sprouted a scenarist’s gifts, but only after Mankiewicz “wrote” Kane? The thematic concerns in Kane — with loneliness, loss, old age, betrayal, corruption and political engagement — are manifest in nearly all of Welles’ subsequent endeavors; indeed, they run throughout his oeuvre as a writer-director, as keenly as deception runs through Billy Wilder’s pictures and failure informs John Huston’s. Did Mankiewicz somehow magically implant Welles’ recurrent concerns as well?
Moreover, the shape of many of the lines and speeches in Kane, the give and take of its arguments and colloquies, the wit and eloquence (and even elegance) of the expression likewise reflect the writer Welles was as much as the look of Kane reflects his directorial flourishes, begun on the stage. One sees, and hears, their corollaries in The Lady from Shanghai, in Mr. Arkadin, in Touch of Evil, in F for Fake and, especially, in the un-filmed (by Welles) The Big Brass Ring. For Welles was a writer; he wrote a plethora of newspaper and magazine columns, radio (and later, television) broadcasts, and plays, in addition to his screenwriting forays, so to imagine him as somehow not responsible for a good portion of the writing of his single great critical success is patently absurd, if not downright invidious. Yet Simon Callow, Welles’ curiously antipathetic biographer, baldy states, “Orson Welles did not write one word of Citizen Kane”… and ignoramus public radio interviewers let him get away with it.
Welles’ eloquence may owe something to his upbringing, particularly since he had no formal schooling after the age of 16. He was an aristocrat, and I think that shows in his movies as it did in the particulars of his life; for all the economic struggle that dogged his filmmaking, he clearly enjoyed a high standard of living. That background is evident too, I think, in some of his attitudes to others. Despite his leftist politics (and for all that Hearst papers and the FBI enjoyed labeling him a Communist) there was a streak of well-heeled moralism in him at times; I think I detect a little of Welles in Charles Foster Kane’s self-righteous riposte to his guardian, “If I don’t defend the interests of the underprivileged, somebody else will — maybe somebody without any money or property, and that would be too bad.” Certainly many of his attitudes were the furthest thing from enlightened; he expressed at times an appalling misogyny, in tandem with a fashionably sneering tone about homosexuals — coupled with a dismaying propensity for post-dubbing other actors with stereotyped “fag” voices. Perhaps it is those two, rather reactionary, strains that have in part led even some friendly commentators to detect a latency in Welles? Nothing, after all, succeeds like deflection.
His lack of formal education had its small defects, among them the propensity to mispronounce common terms: “Arch-type” for “archetype,” “antiquay” for “antique”… and Welles only knows why both Michael Redgrave and Robert Hardin pronounce the word telescope as “teleoscope” in Mr. Arkadin. Welles’ mother died when he was 9, his father when the boy was 15, and a deep subsequent sense of loss seems to have followed him. Without doubt, that emotion is a primary concern in his movies. And too there was his tendency toward egocentric self-aggrandizement, but even Kael granted that, when an artist has had so much taken from him, such attitudes are explicable, if not altogether laudable. (That she wrote this in an essay aimed at taking even more credit from Welles is an irony about which Kael herself was, presumably, not conscious.)
“The absence of limitations is the enemy of art.”
— Orson Welles
The ignorant are, perhaps naturally, all too ready to repeat mythology without bothering to learn anything about reality. And no one occasioned more speculation or accrued more ignoramuses to his legend than Welles — as many now as when he was alive, if not more. “Oh, yes — Welles. Made Citizen Kane. Never did anything after that.” That this ignores Ambersons is perhaps understandable, given that the movie was mutilated by RKO while Welles was in South America, barely released to theatres, and at that with some 50 minutes of shorn footage either incinerated or dumped into the Pacific Ocean — in any case, irrevocably destroyed, beyond the hope of restoration.7†† Welles himself wanted, in the ‘60s, to re-shoot the climax, with Joseph Cotton and Agnes Moorehead (their respective ages at the time would have fit with his original conception) but could not persuade the rights holders of the efficacy of the project. Had the movie been released in anything like Welles’ initial, 140-minute cut, it would have easily bested, if not eclipsed, Kane in conception and achievement. (Jonathan Rosenbaum’s inclusion of the scripts for the deleted sequences, along with some on-set stills, in This is Orson Welles, makes that case more than amply.) That it is still a great picture, a masterpiece even in its extremely bastardized form, and with a risible ending not shot by Welles, is a testament to how great a movie Ambersons is. Yet I become quite literally physically ill every time I think of that deliberately annihilated footage, particularly what was lost of Moorehead’s performance, which, even truncated, is among the greatest ever committed to film.
The “Nothing After Kane” school lives in willful ignorance of Welles’ other Hollywood projects of the time: Of The Stranger which, despite a somewhat perfunctory script (not by Welles, which makes the picture an anomaly in his filmography) contains some breathtaking sequences and, in the burlesque comic Billy House’s extended bit (and whose scenes Welles did write), one of the most delightful, if unheralded, supporting performances of the era; of Macbeth, made for pennies on Poverty Row, and on some occasionally cheesy sets yet despite this one of the richest of all Shakespearean transmigrations to film — brooding, stark and even terrifying; and of The Lady from Shanghai, with its extraordinary gallery of grotesques, from Everett Sloane’s paraplegic cuckold to Glen Anders’ wild ersatz suicide (“I was just doin’ a little target practice…”) and a climax which, although spoiled by some cutting of Welles’ more extensive funhouse sequence and the addition of a bloodcurdlingly dreadful musical score, includes the brilliant hall of mirrors shoot-out that ends the picture.
Not long after, in the late 1940s, Welles left America for Europe. I’ve long suspected he saw what was coming and beat it before he could be blacklisted, and in his essential What Ever Happened to Orson Welles? Joseph McBride reveals that Welles was indeed a target; his FBI file lists the usual “fellow traveler” stats. (He had also been subjected to one of those humiliating “unofficial clearance” interviews with the reactionary Hedda Hopper.) While his European budgets were curtailed — when not actually, as with Othello, nonexistent — and he was subject to terrible technical limitations, he still produced that ruminative, brief but sumptuous and disturbing tragedy, containing superb performances by himself as the Moor and by Mac Liammóir as Iago. Laurence Olivier’s Shakespeare movies got more press — and awards — than Welles’, and made more money, but I would argue that Orson’s Shakespeares are infinitely greater in the aggregate, even as they were far more limited in scope, and as their maker trimmed the texts to his own designs. § Nothing Olivier did in that realm can touch, for instance, Welles’ Chimes at Midnight for breadth, visual poetry or sheer emotional heft.
The battle at Shrewsbury is unlike any such sequence I know in its uncompromisingly honest, even horrifying, depiction of mounted and hand-to-hand combat. And if it is hard to cotton on to Welles’ almost lovesick admiration for Falstaff (“Shakespeare’s good, pure man… the most completely good man in all drama”) it is equally difficult to suppress a shudder, and swallow past the lump in one’s throat, at Welles’ depiction of the old, fat knight’s banishment by Hal at the climax.
“A maverick may go his own way but he doesn’t think that it’s the only way, or ever claim that it’s the best one, except maybe for himself.”
— Orson Welles
The limitations imposed on Welles in his European exiles were two‑fold, and thorny. First, and partly due to the fact that he had, usually through lack of funds, to shoot in real locations, Welles had to forego the excellence of Hollywood sound recording, and often shot silently, dubbing in the voices later, during the editing stage. (A standard practice in European cinema.) And while he maintained that he would rather have a great image than a great reading, post‑dubbing robbed this acutely sound‑conscious filmmaker of one of the hallmarks of his artistry. When the synchronization is good, one scarcely notices it. When it is not so felicitous, one is naggingly, sometimes maddeningly, aware of it, a flaw that detracts even from so manifestly great a movie as Chimes at Midnight. As if Welles needed another stumbling‑block in his way; Shakespeare limits one’s audience enough to begin with. Even those who admired the movie on its release, like Kael, felt that its flaws would likely sink its prospects. Worse, or at least more distractingly, Welles evinced a curiously self‑defeating tendency to dub other actors’ performances, and one is never not aware that it’s his famously distinctive timbre one is hearing. (That he so often dubbed these lines in lisping, deliberately — and, I think, rather maliciously — “faggy” tones, is an added hurdle to enjoyment.) Joseph McBride believes this aural lack forced Welles to be even more creative visually, but when you stack the sound of, say, Kane or Ambersons against that of Arkadin or Chimes at Midnight, the deficiencies are profound.
Second, Welles was hampered by the inavailability in Europe both of the crane that makes grand images possible, and the head grip who operates it. While neither his visual acumen nor his innate ingenuity ever deserted him completely, and indeed, such sequences as Shrewsbury leave little to be further desired, one cannot but think how much richer his later pictures might have been had he been less technically hamstrung. “I didn’t have to know about cutting until I got to Europe,” Welles told Bogdanovich. He cut, sometimes too much, to compensate for his paucity of choices, and the rhythms, even in his best pictures of that period, are sometimes, unaccountably “off.” Of course, some of these movies (Arkadin, for instance) were taken out of Welles’ hands and re-cut, so it is entirely possible, if not probable, that what we perceive as faults in his editing may well be the work of other, less creditable, hands. Certainly this is the case with the Beatrice Welles-supervised “restoration” of Othello, which suffers both from a re-recorded music track that among other things reduces the scope and grandeur of the Francesco Lavagnino score, and from some infelicitous editorial second-guessing.
All that “Nothing”… Like Mr. Arkadin, a thin ghost of Kane, perhaps, in its complicated flashback structure and its interviews with the observers of a great man’s less-than-savory past but withal one of the most engaging of all Welles’ pictures, with superlative turns by Suzanne Flon, Katina Paxinou, Akim Tamiroff and, supremely, Michael Redgrave. (There are at least seven different versions of Arkadin extant, two of which plus a “comprehensive edition” are assembled in the 2006 “Complete” Criterion set, an essential item in the home of any self-respecting cineaste.) Another nothing: Touch of Evil, perhaps the most radical crime drama ever produced at a Hollywood studio, one which — now that Walter Murch has assembled a restoration that at least honors Welles’ innovative sound design — eschews the clichés even as it is constrained by genre, and offers for our consideration the most explicit rejection of investigative brutality between the onset of the Production Code and the relaxation of its strictures. As the nominal hero (played by Charlton Heston, no less) notes, “A policeman’s job is only easy in a police state.”
And here, another myth adored by the Ignorati, as exemplified by the cretinous Tim Burton, who in his execrable Ed Wood has Vincent D’Onofrio as Welles weeping into his beer over being “reduced” to employing Heston in his latest epic, when it is a well-established fact that Welles owed his directing of the movie to Heston. Admittedly a mistake on Heston’s part; when he was told, by a Universal suit, “We’ve got Orson Welles,” Heston replied that he would be happy to appear in anything Welles directed. (Welles had re-written the screenplay and was only, at the time, slated to play the heavy.) The actor’s misapprehension netted Welles the directing job, so the very idea of his pissing and moaning about being “stuck” with the likes of Heston is insulting to everyone concerned.
“I have always been more interested in experiment, than in accomplishment.” — Orson Welles
More “Nothings”: The richly evocative, nightmarish (if not especially enjoyable) The Trial; Chimes at Midnight; F for Fake. How that blazingly original meditation on art, forgery, beauty, sex and the divine comedy of life could fail to find its audience is less surprising than the critical indifference it received in America. What Welles did with F for Fake, taking off from some standard, if lively, documentary footage by François Reichenbach of the enigmatic art forger Elmyr de Hory and his neighbor and biographer Clifford Irving, was nothing less than to bring into being a new form — the personal film essay, in its more modest way as playfully revolutionary as Kane. The picture is not-quite-documentary, not-quite-fiction, and wholly, idiosyncratically Welles: Alternately frisky and sober, filled with Welles’ witty, baroque observations and beautifully photographed by Gary Graver, Welles’ indispensable lighting director and cameraman during his final years. Like Billy Wilder, Welles disdained color, but when he chose to utilize it, he did so in a way that made the images shimmer. He did not, perhaps, help his own case by submitting to the distributor an 11-minute trailer, more a stand-alone short than a preview, which he should have known would be rejected. But can we call F for Fake a “failure” because it did not find its audience? Only if we also call Kane, Ambersons, Arkadin, Touch of Evil and Chimes at Midnight failures merely because they fared poorly in the marketplace — a bazaar always more enamored with fairy tales than with honest expression. F for Fake is a “failure” only if we can also include as failures Moby-Dick and Ulysses, or The Iceman Cometh, or Van Gogh’s art, or Sondheim’s Assassins and Bernstein’s Candide.
And it is here that we perhaps comprehend the ignorant (or maliciously mischievous?) mythmakers. Orson Welles had a few small box-offices successes as a filmmaker, but no “hits.” That is what his detractors are attuned to… plus the delicious frisson of being able to mock him for his Paul Masson commercials, his narration of bad movies and documentaries, his squabbles with producers over the inane copy of a frozen peas ad… and, of course, his expanding waistline. What they neither know nor care to know, is that he poured the revenues from these perhaps ignoble adventures into his work — and that the work was never-ending. Whether the public saw the fruits of those labors, whether he was able to finish them, or wanted to — that was not the point. The point was the labor itself. “He never finishes anything!” was (is?) the cry. Does every artist finish every canvas? Every novelist complete the manuscript? Every poet the stanza? Every composer the sonata? We know, by and large, only what was completed, not the pentimento of the artist’s work, those things he or she “repented” of, painted over, tossed away. Do we pillory Picasso for changing his mind?
Who but Welles, faced with no money and no costumes for his actors, would spend two years prostituting his thespic gifts in other people’s inferior movies in order to complete Othello? Who else, having been sent to Rio de Janero on a “goodwill” project for his government, would labor, with bad — when not non-existent — communications, to complete his edit of Ambersons while simultaneously capturing, in the Jangadero sequences (finally preserved in the documentary “It’s All True”: Based on an Unfinished Film by Orson Welles decades after his death) some of the most luminously beautiful cinematography ever filmed, even as his own studio was haphazardly mutilating his greatest creation back home? “Nobody gets justice,” Welles said. “People only get good luck or bad luck.” His associate Richard Wilson maintained that the South American fiasco was the “direct cause” of Welles’ troubles ever after, and Welles concurred. “No question about it,” he told Bogdanovich. “It all stems from that.” As do the frothing teem of legends about his alleged profligacy, and his irresponsibility with other peoples’ money. Again, who but Welles would struggle to film, and edit, a genuinely experimental movie like The Other Side of the Wind, partially financed (horribile dictu!) by the brother-in-law of the Shah of Iran, and spend the rest of his life trying to extricate his movie from the fangs of revolutionary history?
“Oh, Welles — he never completes anything.”
“God, how they’ll love me when I’m dead!”
— Orson Welles
As Welles’ centenary approached, much speculation was evoked concerning The Other Side of the Wind. Others, Bogdanovich included, are now reportedly toiling to complete something that might approximate Welles’ final vision, and to get it released. Many Welles aficionados are excited by this possibility, but some, even the keenest, are a bit ambivalent. The picture is so laden with personal history, so talked-about but (with the exception of a few brief sequences) largely unseen, so fabled, that they may be excused from almost hoping it never sees the flickering light of exhibition. For, like the Criterion “Comprehensive Edition” of Arkadin, the final product will not be Welles’, but — also like the recent Touch of Evil restoration — only the best approximation of his work.
This is not, you understand, to pillory Bogdanovich, or Walter Murch, or Richard Wilson, or Criterion, for their efforts. Their collective devotion to Welles, like their desire to re-present his work, is sincere. Bogdanovich in particular seems to be doing for Welles what Jo Cotten’s Eugene does for the memory of Dolores Costello at the end of Ambersons: Bringing his mentor’s work “under shelter again.” Nor, if and when Wind is released — every deal up to now has fallen through in the end — will this ardent Wellesian fail to see it. But we do risk grave disappointment in an Other Side of the Wind that falls short of expectations. Some of us who love Welles, and respect him, who experience, even at this remove, so long after his death, real pangs of empathetic regret at his deep frustrations, and who have spent time in fantasizing about Wind, have an uneasy feeling that, if the completion lets him down — lets us down — Welles’ legacy may be further tarnished. In addition, the film‑within‑the‑film that the movie’s star, John Huston, is making in Wind was, by design, a deliberate comment on then-current, early ’70s “with‑it” indulgences of the young tyros being given their collective heads at the time Welles was filming his movie. Will everyone now get the joke, or will some merely, and erroneously, think it’s Welles himself, and not Huston’s “Jake Hannaford,” who is being pretentious and overly frenetic?
Yet even those negative possibilities are no reason to deny the thing itself. How often do we get a “new” Orson Welles? And too, there is the undeniably nostalgic prospect of seeing the movie’s star, John Huston, again; and the still young and not-yet-disgraced Bogdanovich; and the glorious Oja; and Lilli Palmer, standing in for Dietrich, and Edmond O’Brien, and Mercedes McCambridge, and Susan Strasberg as a version of Kael; and Cameron Mitchell, and Norman Foster, and Gregory Sierra, and Paul Mazursky; and the impossibly young Joseph McBride as the sycophantic Mister Pister. And at least Welles’ daughter, the Dread Beatrice, who has fucked up everything of her father’s she’s ever touched (the “restored” Othello, Don Quixote) up to and including his funeral, is not, this time — and thanks to Oja — intimately involved. Joseph McBride, for one, believes ardently that the picture should be completed, and released, and he’s not only devoted decades of his life to splendid Welles scholarship, he’s actually in the movie.
Who knows? Maybe it’ll be wonderful.
But it won’t quite be Welles.
Just as the botched The Big Brass Ring, the real heartbreaker of Welles’ final years, was ultimately not Welles. The screenplay, by Welles and Kodar, is a thing of beauty; literate, witty, perceptive, politically astute, emotionally raw, with perhaps the most chillingly forlorn sequence of voyeurism in the American cinematic canon. In a highly personal touch, the movie’s central figure, the potential President William Blake Pellarin, desperately pursues a woman from his past, much as Welles did Kodar. When they finally come together, they are seen making love, through an open window, by Pellarin’s shady old political mentor, the aging Kim Minnaker, who has long been carrying his own torch for his protégé and who spies the pair while riding a Ferris wheel. In a moment as sexually charged as anything in American movies, Pellarin becomes aware of this scrutiny, and his eyes lock with Minnaker’s. The description of this naked encounter, in the published script, is among the most breathtaking I’ve ever encountered in dramatic literature; it should have burned holes in the screen.
As so often, the industry let Welles down on that one. His financing for this anguished political parable was contingent on his netting a Big Name for the lead (Welles himself would appear in the secondary role of Minnaker.) Where was the Charlton Heston of the 1980s? None of them — not Nicholson, nor Beatty, nor Redford, nor Eastwood nor Reynolds — would agree to lower his asking price, even for the privilege of working in an Orson Welles picture. And when it was done, in 1999, the director George Hickenlooper re-wrote, with F.X. Feeney, that exquisite screenplay… and dropped its finest scene — almost its entire raison d’être — that magnificent, appalling act of voyeurism.
“A film is a dream, but a dream is never an illusion.” — Orson Welles
Welles was, like all important artists (and so many others) obsessed by certain themes: Old age, lost Edens, loneliness. The largest of these, I think, was betrayal. One sees it time and again in his work, and in his overmastering regard for Falstaff. He seemed, in some curious way, to expect to be betrayed, preferably by a younger man, and felt, finally, that he was, by Bogdanovich. Certainly Welles had been betrayed, and repeatedly — by studios, by collaborators, by financiers, by critics and other writers. And, just as certainly, the remarks he made about Bogdanovich to Henry Jaglom at their audiotaped luncheons are not those of a friend. In the transcripts of those tapes Jaglom, quite properly, and in what one senses is genuine disappointment and confusion, upbraids Welles more than once for his rudeness and bigotry. But blindness to the problems of others even as we ourselves struggle was not, is not, unique to Welles. At the risk of an unintended visual pun, he was large; he contained multitudes. So, too, should our response to Welles embrace catholicism: Let what is sad be sad, what is maddening be so too, and what is grand be, as it so often is, magnificent. Welles himself often said that he, an instinctive anti-auteurist, did not believe in creators, but in works. That is more than a fine distinction. It is, finally, an overarching philosophy.
And so let, on that note, the last words of this impassioned defense (and passionate appraisal) of Welles be his. In the deeply moving Chartres sequence of F for Fake, Welles, appearing to gaze at the Cathedral but, Gary Gravers informs us, actually at nothing, in the back yard of his own home (Orson: “Anybody can make movies with a pair of scissors and a two-inch lens.”) contemplates art, and the fate of the artist, in his own, exquisite, probing, style. It’s not a bad epitaph, for him, or for anyone who strives, in a world always and eternally indifferent to artists, for expression.
“Our works in stone, in paint, in print, are spared, some of them, for a few decades or a millennium or two, but everything must finally fall in war, or wear away into the ultimate and universal ash — the triumphs, the frauds, the treasures and the fakes. A fact of life: we’re going to die. ‘Be of good heart,’ cry the dead artists out of the living past. ‘Our songs will all be silenced, but what of it? Go on singing.’ Maybe a man’s name doesn’t matter all that much.”
All other text copyright 2015 by Scott Ross
*Among them, Richard France, Frank Brady, Micheál Mac Liammóir, André Bazin, Joseph McBride, Peter Bogdanovich, Oja Kodar, Gary Graver, Barbara Leaming, Jonathan Rosenbaum, James Naremore, Christopher Welles and Clinton Heylin.
†Touch of Evil was re-written by Welles, from two earlier drafts by Paul Monash and Franklin Coen, which he combined, edited and expanded upon.
††Another legend: The possible existence of Welles’ work-print, left behind in Rio — an almost unbearably tantalizing prospect which, to date, seems mere apocrypha.
§Welles is also a far better Othello than Olivier, whose eye-rolling performance is perhaps the worst, and hammiest, ever given by an important actor in a major screen role.