30 Years Gone, and Oh, How We Still Love Orson Welles
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.” We often think of the later work as later, but all of that is already there early on in embryonic form. His work on “Touch of Evil” is also a reflection of his campaign on behalf the 19 young men wrongly arrested and convicted for the so-called ”Sleepy Lagoon murder” case in 1944. His flogging of that issue in his radio commentaries helped overturn those verdicts completely. But he attracts unwelcome attention very quickly. As early as April 1941 he’s already being spied on by the FBI.
We face this myth that he abandoned “The Magnificent Ambersons” to go gallivanting around Rio, that he just left it to be vandalized by RKO, when in fact he was summoned to Washington and he went to Brazil for his country.
Exactly. He was very politically ambitious for himself, and when war broke out—Pearl Harbor happened while he was filming the snow scenes for “Ambersons” —he flew to Washington and was ready to help. They were worried about Getúlio Vargas, the dictator of Brazil, drifting into the orbit of the Axis powers, and the idea, backed by Nelson Rockerfeller, was to create a “Friendship Zone.” So Welles and “It’s All True,” and his role as a goodwill ambassador, were a part of that. Welles did not abandon “Ambersons;” he in fact finished “Ambersons,” and had a cut prepared by Robert Wise. People say he abandoned it, though, and the legend just sticks.
As you say of that legend, that terribly limited perception of him, in what I think is the most important moment in your book, “What if he was something else entirely? My contention is that he wanted to conquer life, not movies, which is what made his movies so great in the first place.”
It was big for me to realize that too. I had to realize how many received ideas had just come into my mind by osmosis; simply because I live and work here in Los Angeles, I have the same kind of aspirations as others in this town, and it can be all too easy to think the same way. As Robert Wise, his editor, once said, “Well, what became of him after?” And my answer is, he went to Europe and became an artist.
You turn the question around: What did he make of himself?
Exactly. Exile as an active stance, a statement, not a retreat.
After being so engaged politically in the ’30s Popular Front era, in the period of his exile from 1947 to 1956 he seems to retreat almost entirely from direct or explicit political engagement. It was as though he refused even to contemplate submitting to the questioning of [the House Un-American Activities Committee].
I think several things happened to Welles in 1947. Simon Callow in his biography expresses surprise that Welles didn’t get more heavily involved in the independent Henry Wallace campaign in 1947-8 with the Progressive Party, which was closer to his own beliefs. But I think Welles saw the folly in creating a third party and dividing the Democrats. So on one practical level, he wasn’t going to do that. I think he saw his fortunes in Hollywood were in such reversal that his most commercial hit was “The Stranger,” which was also his least personal film. By 1947 he also had the commercial and critical failure of “The Lady from Shanghai” behind him and “Macbeth” coming in, which they were very slow in cutting. So he goes to do a job in Europe, and while he’s over there, they treat him like a king, certainly as an actor. He’s like a guy who landed on a sunny beach and wonders, “Why the hell should I go back?”
And there was the simultaneous, absolute and definitive defeat of the Popular Front politics of the 1930s. He had such a sense of how things were going to go politically. He dodged a bullet. He was able to work and travel in Europe without being blacklisted or having his passport confiscated—unlike Chaplin or Paul Robeson—and he kept his mouth shut except through his work. I also think he got sick of his own celebrity. If we try to look at it as he might have seen it himself, you must remember that in 1947, he’s 32 years old. It’s not even midlife. At the noon of his life, he has to think, “It’s not compromising any principle to stand back and get out of the way.” The House Un-American Activities Committee is just gearing up again. If you’re Welles and you were around to see them make their first moves pre-war [HUAC had focused with maximum hostility on the Federal Theatre Project, and specifically on Welles’ radical play “The Cradle Will Rock,” as early as 1937], you can see that they’re even more firmly in power now after the war, and you have to ask yourself, “What are they gonna shut down next?” You might as well pull your horns in, go to Europe, make the movies you want to make, and come back when the climate has changed without having compromised yourself.
There’s another thing that happened in that period—the opening of the [German] death camps—and I wonder if that monolithic, monumental example of human evil—of a degree sufficient to leave anybody dumbstruck—might have prompted a switch in Welles from workaday political activism to a contemplation of pure, raw, unexampled human evil, the animal man, etc.
He of course acknowledges the death camps earlier than any other filmmaker, in “The Stranger,” in which the Loretta Young character is actually confronted with this evil, and the idea that her husband, played by Welles, is behind it. He’s an immigrant but also a very assimilated American, and that was very much Welles’ dramatic point—that this kind of thing is assimilated into humanity itself. The Nazis are the obvious villains here, but this arises out of human nature itself.
So let’s not congratulate ourselves just yet.
In early 1945, Welles started a daily syndicated column in which he wrote, “I believe that everybody should be interested in politics, but the disaster of the 1920s was that everybody left the practice of politics to the politicians.” Above all, he felt that the United States was going to be the dominant force in postwar geopolitics and would need a counterweight. As he wrote, “We are the greatest production plant and the greatest creditor nation. Without sensible economic agreements, Mr. Luce’s prediction of ‘the American Century’ will come true and God help us all. We’ll make Germany’s bid for supremacy look like amateur night and the inevitable retribution will be on a comparable scale.”
To which, from our dumbed-down, fearful tea party era of 70 years later, the only response is: Wow!
He sees that coming out of the death camps. He sees that, having won, even we are open to being polluted by the evil we have vanquished. And it’s not an American fault per se, it’s about human nature. He probably saw from about 1945-46, once he had fought for the rights of Isaac Woodard [a black World War II veteran brutally assaulted and blinded by a racist sheriff on his return home from the war], and having seen that racist sheriff who blinded him brought to justice, only to be acquitted in 15 minutes by an all-white jury—after which Welles’ radio show got cancelled, even though he had galvanized the nation about the case—it was obvious that the current political climate was not going to welcome his input. And he probably felt he was becoming too much of a target, and it was getting in the way of him doing what he did best. He felt he would be freer to make the same comments, the same moral points in his art. For example, instead of commenting on the air about mixed-race marriage as a natural right, as he had done, he made “Othello,” which deals with interracial marriage once and for all.
These things must inevitably have bred a bleakness and despair in Welles.Welles had a very—I wouldn’t say despairing—but a very dark view of American politics, perhaps too dark to say it out loud. I think it’s greatly represented in “Touch of Evil.” I mean, here’s a movie, made five, six years before the Kennedy assassination, you’ve got a top political bigwig being murdered in a convertible close to the border with Mexico. It’s all pure coincidence, and yet you still get the sense that Kennedy’s death—the physical nature of it—one of the reasons it’s so memorably shocking is because it’s an emblem of American splendor and comfort riding along in a parade of its own authority—and then in an instant it’s gone. And I think Welles was very much in touch with that potential in American life—remember, FDR was also shot at in a convertible, in 1933. In “Touch of Evil,” obviously he’s not prophesying the Kennedy assassination, but seeing prophetically to the heart of the nemesis that awaits any exalted American leader. And assassination in “Touch of Evil” is followed by the taking down of the dark tyrant Hank Quinlan by use of wiretapping and hidden microphones. And here, history outstrips fiction to some extent, because 17 years later, Richard Nixon causes his own downfall by wiretapping himself, whereas you can’t imagine a figure like Hank Quinlan wiretapping himself!
Welles lived long enough to witness the dawn of the VHS era, and also to see movies he’d made that had disappeared—like “Chimes at Midnight” and an early edit of “Touch of Evil”—being broadcast on the Z Channel in Los Angeles, with which you were deeply involved as a consultant and programmer.
He was around long enough to realize that VHS made movies collectible, that his work could now be part of someone’s library. One of the most moving things I recall is Jerry Harvey, the head of Z Channel, and I, the night before Welles died, conspiring about how to gate-crash Ma Maison and get to Welles’ table. A couple of days earlier, [Henry] Jaglom had called up. He was with Welles, and he told us Orson couldn’t come to the phone right now because he was crying, he was so happy to see “Touch of Evil” on Z Channel. Welles was ecstatic because we were running “Chimes at Midnight” and all sorts of rare Welles stuff. And Welles would have been coming home from being on [The] Merv Griffin [Show] the very night Jerry and I were having that conversation, the night he died. But it was a great feeling to know that in the last weeks of his life, Welles was getting a sense of the afterlife of his work.
“God, how they’ll love me when I’m dead.”
Yes, he saw that too. There’s an awful idea of audience-love that wishes the matador would die horribly in the bullring. Because then we can love him forever. There’s that terrible adage that the torturer’s greatest act is to make the victim go on torturing himself after he gets up off the rack. But there’s a flip side to that, the ecstatic, positive version of it: that the artist’s greatest act is to leave you making your own art after the fact. You come away with your own wheels spinning. That’s what Orson Welles does to you.
John Patterson writes about movies and Hollywood for The Guardian. Born in Northern Ireland, he has lived in Los Angeles since 1991.