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30 Years Gone, and Oh, How We Still Love Orson Welles

Posted on Jul 30, 2015

By John Patterson

    Orson Welles. (Wikipedia)

On the centenary of his birth and the 30th anniversary of his death at age 70 in 1985, interest in Orson Welles has been stirred by the discovery of a fragment of his memoir and the release of a new documentary by Chuck Workman, “Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles.” An entirely fresh approach to Welles’ life, work and afterlife is offered by F.X. Feeney’s biography-cum-memoir, “Orson Welles: Power, Heart and Soul.” In it, Feeney tells Welles’ life story as it relates to his work and his politics, drawing on his four decades of deep thinking about Welles and his films, but also delving into the work of earlier biographers and academics who have worked to shape and protect—and sometimes distort—Welles’ legacy and reputation. In a characteristically Wellesian narrative flourish, Feeney inserts himself into the later stages of the narrative to discuss his own adaptation of Welles’ 1982 screenplay “The Big Brass Ring,” which was filmed in 1999 by the late George Hickenlooper.

Truthdig talked with Feeney about Welles’ posthumous reputation and the myths and misconceptions that adhere to his memory, with special reference to the political activities and utterances he engaged in throughout his life.

Notwithstanding all that we’ve learned about him and his work in the 30 years since his death, we still imagine Welles as this figure, this “genius,” throwing away his talent, squandering goodwill, unable to complete anything, nailing himself to the cross of his own worst instincts, prostituting his talent on chat shows and TV guest spots, and generally wasting his own time and ours. All this despite the fact that a good deal of the material and new information unearthed since his death tends to totally undermine these perceptions. What is the state of Welles’ reputation at 100?

You actually get to start over with Welles these days. You can explain him all over again to people now. Welles is central to the culture in a lot of ways, but what movies mean has changed; movies are no longer at the center of motion-picture culture. If there is a sense of calcification, of opinions about him petrifying forever as soon as his obituaries are published, it has to do with an abiding misperception of Hollywood as the epicenter of movies. Too many critics and biographers see Welles as the victim of a system. Now, Hollywood is one kind of system, but then there’s the larger system of the world Welles lived in. He’s nobody’s victim, that’s for sure. He’s a survivor, even though he may be making bad choices. His reputation on the day he died was as someone who’d never reached his full potential. But, as he once said, “Oh, how they’ll love me when I’m dead.”

It’s very easy to think that the creative climax of his life comes at age 23, with the release of “Citizen Kane,” and that thereafter it’s all downhill for him.

Yes, the most toxic myth about Welles is that he had it all—and blew it, threw it all away, and that pervades a lot of accounts. People ask how could he not stay at that summit? He simply fell prey to every fortune of life. There’s the war coming on. He’s making movies that don’t make money for a studio with a bottom line that wants profits he’s not delivering. There’s taking on an immensely powerful tycoon in the form of William Randolph Hearst. And Welles has his own personality to deal with as well. The other thing that caused people to go against him from the outset was that he was, before arriving in Hollywood, a celebrity, a household name, already world-famous.

He was fully formed when he arrived in Hollywood. He was a talented sketch artist all his life—essentially a born storyboarder; a pioneering sound designer because of his revolutionary radio work; a gifted imagist, as proven by his lighting designs for the stage—especially his fascist “Julius Caesar,” which, like “Kane,” was very proto-noir in its extreme chiaroscuro; obviously Shakespeare and the theater are thoroughly embedded in his DNA from the cradle onward; and he’s also a professional magician, literally an illusionist. What else do you need for cinema? That’s like the recipe for cinema!

Absolutely. You can say he was unprecedented, so the things that befell him were the kind that tend to attach themselves to unprecedented phenomena. Then there’s his own nature. Michere MacLiammmat, who directed him as a teenager at the Gate Theatre in Dublin, said that he was “undisciplined.” Now, listen to that word closely. He was always hardworking, so that wasn’t the issue. The real point was he was nobody’s >i>disciple. I think he had certain masters—as he said himself, “I’ve studied all the old masters—John Ford, John Ford and John Ford.” But he could cherry-pick the examples he wanted to make use of. He was, on the whole, his own consultant.

His work was never not political, it seems. Right from his earliest stage successes—his “Macbeth” (1936), with an all-black cast, and his fascist-themed “Julius Caesar” of 1937—he is provoking reactions, drawing uncomfortable political parallels.

The [so-called] “Voodoo Macbeth” was the production [Welles and producer John Houseman] made their mark with, in April 1936. That audience was absolutely galvanized. The most moving reaction was recorded by the novelist James Baldwin, who was in the audience as a 12-year-old, with his white teacher, who was an activist. He had read Shakespeare but had not conceived of it as being directed toward him, so to see people of his own race enacting that story and owning it was mesmerizing for him, a beautiful experience he describes in his book “The Devil Finds Work.” Everyone in the audience was affected the same way. We see “Gone With the Wind” with Hattie MacDaniel and Butterfly McQueen and think, “Well, this is the way black people were treated on screen.” That was the norm, the inescapable norm, but no, Welles and Houseman broke the back of that right off, which was very radical.

As for “Caesar,” as it was titled, Welles was obviously very well aware of the rise of Mussolini’s fascists and the Nazis in Germany, so he took Leni Riefenstahl’s iconography—the searchlights going vertically, familiar from the Nuremberg party rallies, to look like pillars of light, and had his Romans dressed in jackboots and leather, and saluting each other in the fascist style, which was actually also very much the Roman style. Basically they’re sieg heiling each other—that was sufficient for the audience of the day, very unsettling and powerful.

And of course, he was a syndicated newspaper columnist and radio commentator for a number of years before, during and after the war, often espousing what for those times were some very radical ideas, about race in particular.

With the outbreak of the war, he was immediately involved with patriotic things, and he was also a major performer in “The March of Time,” which of course he spoofs in “Citizen Kane,” so he did have that sense of commenting. And there was the radio drama series, “Orson Welles’s Almanac.” In 1941, for instance, he does an episode called “His Honor the Mayor,” about the mayor of a small Mexican border town and his political enemies, racists and anti-unionists, basically all about the Bill of Rights.

Which sounds like a foretaste of “Touch of Evil.”

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