Despite creating the perfect film at 25, Orson Welles’s life was characterised by near misses and might-have-beens, writes Paul Fennessy
“There, but for the grace of God, goes God,” screenwriter Herman J Mankiewicz said of Orson Welles, while observing him at work. As a description of a 25-year-old first-time director, this statement would normally be considered more than a little hyperbolic.
However, given that the director was on the verge of completing Citizen Kane, a film he also wrote, produced and starred in – and a picture widely regarded as the greatest film of all time in industry circles, Mankiewicz’s quote encapsulated the sheer audacity and charisma that Welles’s personality exuded.
Yet Welles was hardly unheard of before Citizen Kane. On the contrary: he was regarded as a modern-day Renaissance man. Fuelled by a diet that encompassed two dinners in one sitting, along with his relentless intake of amphetamines (Welles misguidedly believed that taking them would prevent his weight from spiralling), the director led an enormously active life during the late 30s and early 40s.
The indefatigable Welles’s schedule, in which he frequently worked 20 hours a day, encompassed regular appearances on weekly light entertainment shows. Welles also often engaged in political activism, even writing political speeches for Franklin D. Roosevelt. Indeed, Welles once remarked: “Only very intelligent people don’t wish they were in politics and I’m dumb enough to be in there.”
Nevertheless, in spite of his contributions to the world of politics, Welles’s most famous (or perhaps infamous) endeavour away from cinema was undoubtedly his radio broadcast of H.G Wells’ classic tale of alien invasion – The War of the Worlds. Hilariously, Welles neglected to inform his listeners that the reading was a work of fiction. The broadcast, therefore, prompted mass hysteria as a large number of those listening mistook the work for a news broadcast.
Despite Kane constituting Welles’s finest hour, the overall experience of making the film – like pretty much everything else in his life – proved to be bittersweet. The movie was a thinly veiled indictment of William Randolph Hearst, the most influential newspaper magnate of the period. Rosebud, the key phrase around which the narrative revolves, was even reputed to have been a reference of the nickname given to a rather intimate part of the anatomy of Marion Davies, Hearst’s mistress.
Unsurprisingly, the tycoon reacted with vehement venom. Hearst’s power was such that the film almost never saw the light of day as a result of his objections, and several of those involved in making the picture were threatened by his associates. As a result of the stress that such difficulties imposed on Welles, in addition to the sheer exhaustion which creating this masterpiece caused him, his health suffered interminably prior to its release.
For his next project, a rejuvenated Welles eventually settled on The Magnificent Ambersons, Booth Tarkington’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about the social conventions of a prosperous family in early twentieth century Indianapolis.
This later film, like Kane, turned out to be a commercial failure. This time, though, even those usually enamoured with Welles reacted unfavourably. Welles himself was left furious after studio interference radically altered the picture just before its release: the RKO studios panicked after preview audiences greeted the film with apathy. RKO subsequently elected to re-edit the work and cut more than 50 minutes of its running time, all while Welles was working on another project in Brazil.
The interference of studio executives was to be a recurrent theme of Welles’s career. He once claimed that Citizen Kane was the only film for which he had total artistic freedom. Consequently, his ensuing work was irrevocably haunted by the ghost of this masterpiece.
Not that this prevented him from trying to better it: the closest Welles came to matching Kane’s greatness, however, was arguably his acerbic acting turn in Carol Reed’s The Third Man.
Regardless of the flaws which permeated later directorial efforts, his films – from the poorly plotted Lady from Shanghai to the ingeniously crafted F for Fake are immensely watchable and never fail to evoke intrigue. Thus, all his works are essential viewing for any serious movie fan and Touch of Evil in particular, with its famously prolonged tracking shot, represents virtuoso cinema (some Welles enthusiasts even regard it as superior to Citizen Kane).
Ultimately though, a sense of unfulfilled potential will always be associated with Orson Welles. While Citizen Kane was bound to be unsurpassable, his decline remains stark. For all the fleeting moments of genius which were continually evident in his films, the quality and quantity of his output does not stand up when compared with other prodigious cinematic auteurs such as Bergman, Fellini and Hitchcock.
Accordingly, Welles died an immensely sad man, having been reduced to featuring in brainless big budget films such as the 1986 edition of Transformers while also appearing in an array of nonsensical commercials.
Tragically, therefore, Orson Welles’s art belatedly imitated his life. In a similar manner to Charles Foster Kane, the originally carefree and effervescent Welles ended his days depressed and bitter. “Hollywood died on me as soon as I got there,” he sardonically concluded.
Me and Orson Welles is released on 4th December.