Loretta Barnard

Know who you’re Googling: Orson Welles

Welles

Approx Reading Time-11Orson Welles. Philanderer. Egotist. Auteur. With his long-dead project exhumed by Netflix, why not share your breakfast with Orson. Just mind your fingers. And your manners.

 

 

 

In March this year, streaming site Netflix announced that it had obtained the rights to complete – and later release – the unfinished Orson Welles mockumentary, The Other Side of the Wind. Welles directed the film, and was co-writer and co-producer. Shooting began in 1970 and essentially finished in 1976, although Welles continued to work on it until his death in 1985, by which time he’d completed about 40 minutes worth of editing.

Welles left behind a number of unfinished projects, but The Other Side of the Wind garnered notoriety because of the legal wrangles associated with it, including being an unlikely casualty of the Iranian Revolution in 1979, which resulted in the footage being stored in a Paris warehouse for some 40 years. Legal ownership of the material was also long disputed between Welles’s daughter and heir Beatrice and his lover Oja Kodar, who co-wrote the script and had inherited Welles’s ownership of the film.

Now, finally, 47 years after it began, his notes will be used to inform completion of this legendary unfinished film starring John Huston as a 70-year-old director trying to make his Hollywood comeback.

Somehow this epic story says a great deal about Orson Welles himself. Born on this day, 6 May 1915, everything about him was big. He had big ideas, ambitious projects and grand concepts about how to use lighting and photography in film. His voice was big; he was physically big too. Almost two metres tall, by middle age he weighed around 125 kilograms. He once said, “My doctor told me to stop having intimate dinners for four, unless three other people are with me.” He had a tremendous appetite for women; he married three times and was unfaithful to them all, even screen goddess Rita Hayworth. Go figure.


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The thing that was biggest about Orson Welles was his talent. In the course of his 70 years, he was a painter, musician, actor, director, producer, writer, political activist, even a magician. Something of a child prodigy, whatever he touched he mastered. Orphaned by the age of 15, he took to art, then theatre, making a strong impression in Shakespearian roles on stage in Ireland and later in the US. He co-edited a performance edition of Shakespeare’s plays, which became a performing bible for some years. His love of Shakespeare never waned. His Macbeth (1948), Othello (1951) are still respected today even if they did poorly at the box office. He considered his great tribute to the Bard, Chimes at Midnight (1965), in which Welles plays Falstaff, one of his best films; critic Vincent Canby agreed, saying it “may be the greatest Shakespearian film ever made”.

His mellifluous voice and theatrical experience made him a perfect fit for radio. His most notable radio performance was The War of the Worlds (1938), based on the HG Wells classic. Broadcast as a real-time event – a music program interrupted by breaking news reports of the Earth being invaded by creatures from outer space – it caused a sensation.

Reports of mass hysteria are exaggerated, but the ensuing media outrage ensured that Welles was a force to be reckoned with. He was soon signed to RKO Studios.

Citizen Kane (1941) – still regularly voted the best film of all time – was made when he was only 26. It was his first outing as a filmmaker in a movie he co-wrote, produced, directed and starred in. A startling debut from a first-time director. Indeed, in spite of some stunning work afterwards, nothing else came anywhere close to his early masterpiece. Much has been written about this remarkable film and you can read more learned accounts for yourself. Suffice to say the cinematography, lighting, editing and use of flashback were radical departures from what had gone before, and the use of Bernard Herrmann’s music – only in scenes where it would provide the greatest impact – was inspired.

Unfortunately for Welles, his artistic milestone was a financial flop, primarily because the publishing empire run by William Randolph Hearst, upon whom the character of Charles Foster Kane was based, made sure the film received only negative reviews.

Another feather in Welles’s cap was The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), but the studio cut over 45 minutes and altered the ending. Although it was well received by critics and audiences, Welles felt his work had been destroyed. This was not mere pique on his part. The studio also edited Bernard Herrmann’s score so severely that the composer insisted his name be taken off the credits.


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One of the things about Welles was the ambitiousness of his projects. After Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, however, his career took a nosedive. He was considered too egotistical, too controlling and a bad financial manager. Studio executives didn’t care for his perceived wilfulness.

Yet he continued to act, appearing in such classics as Jane Eyre (1943), The Stranger (1946) and cult classic film noir The Third Man (1949). He also continued to make films, among them The Lady from Shanghai (1948), a rather fine film in which he somewhat spitefully made his estranged wife Rita Hayworth cut off her gorgeous long red hair and become a blonde. Shot in Mexico, The Lady from Shanghai is another Wellesian tour de force noted for its final thrilling shootout in a hall of mirrors.

The complex, three-minute single-shot opening scene of Touch of Evil (1958) is still talked about by filmmakers for its cinematography, lighting and sheer suspense. Now considered one of Welles’s best films and a stellar example of film noir, it was re-edited by the studio much to Welles’s disgust. This was the last of his Hollywood movies as director.

Disillusioned by the American studio system, Welles lived and worked in Europe for many years. He was always working on something: film, radio, documentaries. As he aged he appeared in television commercials, talk shows and did voice-overs. He remarked wryly, “I started at the top and worked my way down.”

Welles had seemingly boundless creativity. He had daring ideas for stage work and audacious visions for films. In a career dogged by controversy, perhaps he was a man before his time. He blamed financial backers and the critics for the commercial failure of many of his works, but his huge personality rubbed people up the wrong way. It’s a bit rough to be told in your twenties that your best work is behind you; perhaps that accounted for his hard-headedness.

A creative master with a soaring imagination, Orson Welles was a pioneer in many respects. Both lauded and demeaned in his lifetime, it’s a pity he was forced to make artistic compromises for studios with a poor eye for brilliance and a reluctance to embrace innovation.

Seriously, what were they thinking?

 

 

Loretta Barnard

Loretta Barnard is a freelance writer and editor who has authored four non-fiction books, been a contributing writer to a wide range of reference books and whose essays have been published across a number of platforms. A regular contributor to The Big Smoke, she also coordinates the TBS Next Gen program.

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