Citizen Welles: A Biography of Orson Welles
The Big Brass Ring
Although Orson Welles was only ten years my senior, he had been famous for most of my life. I was thirteen when he made his famous Martians-are-coming radio broadcast. Then, three years later, when Welles was twenty-six, there was, suddenly, Citizen Kane. I was particularly susceptible to Citizen Kane because I was brought up among politicians and often saw more of my own father in newsreels than in life, particularly “The March of Time,” whose deep-toned thundering narrator—the voice of history itself—Welles was to evoke in his first film, whose cunning surface is so close to that of newsreel-real life that one felt, literally, at home in a way that one never did in such works of more gorgeous cinematic art as All This and Heaven Too.
Five years later, at the Beverly Hills Hotel, I first beheld the relatively lean Orson Welles. (“Note,” Mercury Player Joseph Cotten once told me, “how Orson either never smiles on camera, or, if he has to, how he sucks in his cheeks so as not to look like a Halloween pumpkin.”) On his arm was Rita Hayworth, his wife. He has it all, I remember thinking in a state of perfect awe untouched by pity. Little did I know—did he know?—that just as I was observing him in triumph, the great career was already going off the rails while the Gilda of all our dreams was being supplanted by the ever more beautiful Dolores del Rio. Well, Rita never had any luck. As for Welles….
As for Welles. First, who—what—was Welles? For the television generation he is remembered as an enormously fat and garrulous man with a booming voice, seen most often on talk shows and in commercials where he somberly assured us that a certain wine would not be sold “before its time,” whatever that meant. But Welles himself was on sale, as it were, long before his time in the sense that he was an astonishing prodigy, as Frank Brady records in Citizen Welles, a long biography which, blessedly, emphasizes the films in detail rather than the set of conflicting humors that made up the man.
Born in Kenosha, Wisconsin, May 6, 1915, Welles was much indulged by a well-to-do, somewhat arty family. He was a born actor, artist, writer, magician. At fifteen, he ended his schooling. At sixteen, he was acting, successfully, grown-up parts for Dublin’s Gate Theater. At eighteen, he co-edited and illustrated three Shakespeare plays and a commercial textbook, Everybody’s Shakespeare. At nineteen, he appeared on Broadway as Chorus and Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet. At twenty-two, he founded his own acting company, The Mercury Theater, whose greatest success was a modern-dress Julius Caesar with Welles as Brutus. The Mercury Theater then took radio by storm, dramatizing novels and stories, among them H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds, done in a realistic radio way, using the medium to report, moment by moment, the arrival of Martians in New Jersey. The subsequent national panic augurs ill for that inevitable day when Ortega drops his Señor Buén Muchacho mask and nukes Miami.
In due course RKO gave Welles a free hand, if a limited budget, to write, direct, and star in his first film. Citizen Kane began a new era in the movies. For those given to making lists, Citizen Kane still remains on everyone’s list of the ten best films; often as the best film ever made. But for Welles himself things started to fall apart almost immediately. The Hearst newspapers declared war on him for his supposed travesty of Hearst’s personal life. On Kane’s deathbed, he whispers the word “Rosebud.” This is thought to be the key, somehow, to his life. In the film it turns out to be a boy’s sled, which Mr. Stephen Spielberg recently bought for $55,000. In actual life, Rosebud was what Hearst called his friend Marion Davies’s clitoris, the sort of item that producers of children’s films tend not to collect. Although the next film The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) might have been even better than Citizen Kane, there was trouble with the editing, largely because Welles was in South America, failing to make a film.
For the rest of his life Welles moved restlessly around the world, acting on stage, in movies, on television. As director-actor, he managed to make Macbeth, Othello, Chimes at Midnight (the world from Falstaff’s point of view). He also invented, as much as anyone did, the so-called film noir with Journey into Fear (1943), The Lady from Shanghai (1948), Touch of Evil (1958).
Everything that Welles touched as a director has a degree of brilliance, here and there, but he was always running out of money not to mention leading ladies, who kept mysteriously changing in his films, because he was often obliged to shut down for long periods of time, and then, when he started again, actors would be unavailable. In Othello Desdemona, finally, is a most expressive blond wig. Meanwhile, Welles took every acting job he could to finance his own films and pay American taxes. We got to know each other in the Sixties, a period which Mr. Brady regards as “the nadir” of Welles’s acting career. Well, all I can say is that there was an awful lot of nadir going around in those days. In fact, Welles acted in a nadir film that I had written called Is Paris Burning? (it wasn’t, to the eternal dismay of Michel Tournier).1
In later years we appeared on television together. “You see, I have to do the talk shows to keep my lecture price up at the universities.” Orson always acted as if he were broke and, I suppose, relative to the Business, he was. He seemed to live in Spain as well as Hollywood and Las Vegas, “where I am near the airport,” he would say mysteriously. “Also there are no death duties in Nevada unlike, shall we say, Haiti.”
Orson’s conversation was often surreal and always cryptic. Either you picked up on it or you were left out. At one point, he asked me to intervene on his behalf with Johnny Carson because there had been a “misunderstanding” between them and he was no longer asked to go on The Tonight Show and his lecture fees had, presumably, plummeted. I intervened. Carson was astonished. There was no problem that he knew of. I reported this to Orson in the course of one of our regular lunches at a French restaurant in Hollywood where Orson always sat in a vast chair to the right of the door. There was a smaller chair for one guest and an even smaller chair for a totally unprincipled small black poodle called Kiki.
“There is more to this than Johnny will ever tell you,” he rumbled. “Much, much more. Why,” he turned to the waiter with small cold eyes, “do you keep bringing me a menu when you know what I must eat. Grilled fish.” The voice boomed throughout the room. “And iced tea. How I hate grilled fish! But doctor’s orders. I’ve lost twenty pounds. No one ever believes this. But then no one ever believes I hardly eat anything.” He was close to four hundred pounds at the time of our last lunch in 1982. He wore bifurcated tents to which, rather idly, lapels, pocket flaps, buttons were attached in order to suggest a conventional suit. He hated the fat jokes that he was obliged to listen to—on television at least—with a merry smile and an insouciant retort or two, carefully honed in advance. When I asked him why he didn’t have the operation that vacuums the fat out of the body, he was gleeful. “Because I have seen the results of liposuction when the operation goes wrong. It happened to a woman I know. First, they insert the catheter in the abdomen, subcutaneously.” Orson was up on every medical procedure. “The suction begins and the fat—it looks like yellow chicken fat. You must try the chicken here. But then the fat—hers not the chicken’s—came out unevenly. And so where once had been a Rubensesque torso, there was now something all hideously rippled and valleyed and canyoned like the moon.” He chuckled and, as always, the blood rose in his face, slowly, from lower lip to forehead until the eyes vanished in a scarlet cloud, and I wondered, as always, what I’d do were he to drop dead of stroke.
We talked mostly of politics and literature. At our last lunch, I was running in the Democratic primary for Senate. Orson approved. “I too had political ambitions, particularly back in the FDR days. I used to help him with speeches and I like to think I was useful to him. I know he thought I should have a serious go at politics some day. Well, some day came. They wanted me to run for the Senate in my home state of Wisconsin, against Joe McCarthy. Then I let them—another ‘them’—convince me that I could never win because,” and the chuckle began again, “I was an actor—hence, frivolous. And divorced—hence, immoral. And now Ronnie Reagan, who is both, is president.” Eyes drowned in the red sea; laughter tolled; then, out of who knows what depths of moral nullity, Kiki bit a waiter’s sleeve.
When I observed that acting—particularly old-time movie acting—was the worst possible preparation for the presidency because the movie actor must be entirely passive so that he can do and say exactly what others tell him to do and say, Orson agreed that although this might be true in general (we both excluded him from any generality), he had known two movie actors who would have been good presidents. One was Melvyn Douglas. The other was Gregory Peck. “Of course,” he was thoughtful, “Greg isn’t much as an actor, which may explain why he has so good a character.”
During the last year of our occasional meetings, Orson and I were much preoccupied with Rudy Vallée. The popular singer of yesteryear was living in the mansion “Silvertip” high atop that Hollywood hill halfway up which I sometimes live. When the maestro heard that I was his neighbor, he sent me a copy of his memoirs Let The Chips Fall…. Like a pair of Talmudic scholars, Orson and I constantly studied this astonishing book. Parts of it we memorized:
Somehow I have never inspired confidence. I don’t think it is due to any weakness particularly evident in my face, but there is something about me, possibly a quiet reserve or shyness, that gives most people the impression that I can’t do anything very well.
Each of us had his favorite moments. Mine was the telegram (reproduced) that Rudy sent the relatively unknown radio announcer, Arthur Godfrey, in 1940, to show what a keen eye and ear Rudy had for talent (for a time Vallée ran a talent agency). Orson preferred the highly detailed indictment of Rudy’s protégé “The Ungreatfulcholy Dane,” Victor Borge, complete with reproductions of interoffice memoranda, telegrams sent and received, culminating in two newspaper cuttings. One headline: “VICTOR BORGE SUED FOR $750,000”; the other: “BORGE SUED BY THE IRS.”
I was astonished to read in Frank Brady's Citizen Welles that Orson was offered the starring role in Caligula, "but when he read the Gore Vidal script and found it to be a mixture of hard-core pornography and violence, he peremptorily turned it down on moral grounds." Since Brady also gets the plot to The Big Brass Ring wrong, I assumed that he was wrong about Caligula, a part Orson could not have played even if my script for the picture had been used as written. But now, suddenly, I recalled Kenneth Tynan telling me that Orson had indeed been upset by my original script. "You must never forget what a Puritan he is when it comes to sex."↩
I was astonished to read in Frank Brady’s Citizen Welles that Orson was offered the starring role in Caligula, “but when he read the Gore Vidal script and found it to be a mixture of hard-core pornography and violence, he peremptorily turned it down on moral grounds.” Since Brady also gets the plot to The Big Brass Ring wrong, I assumed that he was wrong about Caligula, a part Orson could not have played even if my script for the picture had been used as written. But now, suddenly, I recalled Kenneth Tynan telling me that Orson had indeed been upset by my original script. “You must never forget what a Puritan he is when it comes to sex.”↩