“A certain great and powerful king once asked a poet, ‘What can I give you of all that I have?’ He wisely replied, ‘Anything, sir…except your secret.”‘
—Orson Welles, epigraph to Mr. Arkadin
One of Orson Welles’s best stories, though not one of his best films, Mr. Arkadin (1955) tells of an aging tycoon of mysterious origins who becomes terminally anxious that the guilty secrets of his past will come to light. He hires a venal adventurer to seek out the people who still remember the truth—and then has them systematically killed. When it becomes clear that the scheme has failed and the truth has been unmasked, Arkadin kills himself by jumping from his plane, vanishing (literally) into thin air.
Though filmed in Welles’s most grandiloquently baroque manner and studded with dazzling performances from such character actors as Akim Tamiroff, Katina Paxinou, and Michael Redgrave, Mr. Arkadin falls far short of Citizen Kane as a meditation on biography, not only because of wholesale reworking by other hands (“More completely than any other picture of mine has been hurt by anybody, Arkadin was destroyed,” Welles told his biographer Barbara Leaming), but also because of its curiously indifferent portrayals of the two central characters. Hiding behind egregiously phony beard and makeup as Gregory Arkadin, Welles seems determined to keep him as hollow and insubstantial as possible, a symbol rather than a human being, as if illustrating too literally Jorge Luis Borges’s description of Citizen Kane: “a centerless labyrinth.” Welles allows Robert Arden to play Guy Van Stratten, Arkadin’s researcher, as an utter fool, devoid of any but the most self-serving motives. Arkadin’s contempt for Van Stratten is matched by that of the director, who displays wrath at those who dare to reveal the darkest secrets of others, even if they’ve been invited to do so. The emotional “No Trespassing” sign Welles erected in Arkadin helps to explain why he was so skittish about having his own life probed by interviewers, and why he never managed to write a full-fledged autobiography.
Nearly twenty-five years ago, Peter Bogdanovich, then a young film journalist and budding director with one undeservedly obscure B-movie (Targets) to his name, was invited by Welles to interview him for “a nice little book” intended to “set the record straight” about his life and work. It was a chance to explore and understand the mysteries of a film maker long absent from the American scene, a man whose life had become as quasimythical as those of his protagonists. But Bogdanovich found that the unexpectedly lengthy and contentious process took on unsettling resemblances to Mr. Arkadin: “There were times when I seemed to play a variation of Van Stratten to Welles’ personal version of Arkadin, because during our talks (on or off the record), he would get particularly agitated and annoyed about connections made between his work and his own life.” Their fragmentary but fascinating interviews, edited by Jonathan Rosenbaum and now belatedly (very belatedly) published as This Is Orson Welles, follow the jigsaw-puzzle method that Welles favored in approaching the mysteries of a great man’s life, but they reveal as much about Welles’s stubborn resistance to the autobiographical impulse as they do about the man and his films.
During the seven years in which these interviews were conducted and in the remaining years of his life, Welles was seen by the public mostly in embarrassingly silly television appearances, trading quips with Johnny Carson, clowning with Dean Martin, doing magic tricks for Merv Griffin, and serving as a commercial pitchman who vowed to “sell no wine before its time.” Even as his youthful triumph with Citizen Kane became the subject of increasing reverence, the living Orson Welles became a national mockery: the butt of Carson’s fat jokes and, even more damagingly, the object of condescension from those who felt that he was “wasting his talent.”
Made with virtually unprecedented artistic freedom when Welles was only twenty-five, Kane became both his glory and his curse: everything after it couldn’t help seeming like an anticlimax, no matter what else he achieved. In retrospect, all of Welles’s later problems could be traced back to their roots in that too-early success, the unrealistic expectations it raised, and the virulent reaction against it by Hearst and Hollywood. Kane barely escaped being burned to placate the powerful publisher who served as the partial model for its central character, and though the film was a critical sensation, RKO had trouble finding theaters willing to play it. “Nobody would book it—they were scared,” Welles recalled.
Welles’s second feature, his adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons, might have surpassed the artistic achievement of Kane if it had not been mutilated by the panicky and increasingly hostile studio following a disastrous preview in Pomona. This Midwestern equivalent of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard—a somber tale of a city that “befouled itself and darkened its sky” with the coming of the automobile—had the misfortune to be released when audiences were flocking to sunny fare as an escape from the dark headlines of World War II. After being cut by forty-three minutes and partially reshot, Ambersons was dumped onto the market on a double bill with the Lupe Velez comedy Mexican Spitfire Sees a Ghost, and was pulled from distribution hastily despite promising box-office results in several key cities. Bogdanovich has described its cutting as “the greatest artistic tragedy in the movies,” and Welles lamented, “They destroyed Ambersons, and the picture itself destroyed me.”
Welles was recalled from South America, where he was in the midst of shooting a goodwill documentary for RKO and the US government, It’s All True. With that film forcibly taken from him and abandoned, he was stripped of his studio contract and sent on the road for a lifetime as what he called “a migratory worker. I go where the jobs are, like a cherry picker…. I had luck as no one had. Afterwards, I had the worst bad luck in the history of the cinema, but that is in the order of things: I had to pay for having had the best luck in the history of the cinema.”
The major achievements with which Welles followed Kane and Ambersons also tended to fall into the category of film maudit—whether because of bizarre filming difficulties (Othello, recently “restored” in a crisp new print but with its music and dialogue altered in ways that would have appalled the director); reworking and contemptuous burial by the front office (Touch of Evil, which can be seen in a longer version containing more of Welles’s footage as well as more scenes interpolated by a studio hack director); or because of repeated attacks by the New York Times’s reviewer Bosley Crowther, who almost singlehandedly scared off US exhibitors (Chimes at Midnight, which the philistine pundit called “a confusing patchwork of scenes and characters” with a “fuzzy and incomprehensible” soundtrack).
Chimes at Midnight (1966) is based on Shakespeare’s cycle of plays about King Henry IV, Prince Hal (later Henry V), and Hal’s corpulent boon companion, Sir John Falstaff, whom Welles called “one of the only great characters in all dramatic literature who is essentially good.” Anticipating his own end, Falstaff tells Ha! with urgent warmth, “[B]anish plump Jack, and banish all the world!” I’ve always felt that line—indeed, Welles’s whole glorious performance as Falstaff—was Welles’s own passionate rebuff to those who used his girth to belittle him. Not only was Falstaff a character Welles was born to play, but Chimes was a film he had spent much of his life preparing to direct. He first played Falstaff when he was a boy, at the Todd School in Woodstock, Illinois; at the age of twenty-three, he played the role again in his 1939 Theatre Guild/Mercury Theater condensation of several of Shakespeare’s history plays, Five Kings. Telescoping and editing Shakespeare further for his and Hilton Edwards’s 1960 Belfast and Dublin stage production titled Chimes at Midnight, and finally for the film version, Welles sharpened his focus on the larger-than-life figure of Falstaff and on the themes that concerned him most. He poured into the rich, melancholy story a lifetime of thoughts and feelings about such profound matters as old age and mortality, the betrayal of love and friendship, and the true meaning of honor, fatherhood, and kingly responsibility.
For all its virtuosity, and even while performing the rare feat of believably conjuring up a long-vanished world, Chimes resolutely avoids “technical surprises or shocks,” Welles said, because “everything of importance in the film should be found on the faces.” In Chimes at Midnight, as in the similarly elegiac The Magnificent Ambersons, Welles’s usually dominant camera remains the servant of his characters: for as he remarked, “There is a more personal feeling in those films, a deeper emotion.”
The first time I saw Chimes was on the last night of its three-day run in Chicago in 1967; the theater was scheduled to turn into a soft-core porno house the following day, so I sat through it three times that night, not knowing when I would ever be able to see again the film I considered (and still do) Welles’s masterpiece. I remember how the grizzled old winos who made up much of the audience reveled in Falstaff’s humor, not fazed by the Elizabethan language; if Welles’s film could please these groundlings, it could have pleased anybody, I felt at the time, but it was not to be. Welles’s last chance for popular success had passed, and his career would be increasingly marginal from that time forward, despite his valiant efforts to reclaim his reputation. What I wrote of Welles’s Falstaff in 1969 could be applied to Welles himself:
He has none of Kane’s guile and worldly ability, and his greatness presents itself as a monstrous jest impossible to ignore but easy to dismiss. He demands nothing but attention, and offers all of himself in return. His egocentricity, like his body, is carried past the ridiculous into the sublime, to the point of melancholia. He fears nothing but death, and reproaches Doll Tearsheet with, “Thou’lt forget me when I am gone.” It is unlikely that Welles as director or actor will achieve again so moving a scene as that of Falstaff’s expulsion. With the author’s consent we may feel superior to Kane, but we are never superior to Falstaff. He is naked before us. Chimes at Midnight is Welles’s testament.1
The only two theatrical films Welles managed to complete in the last seventeen years of his life, F for Fake (1973) and Filming “Othello” (1979), were delightful intellectual divertissements, but since they fell into the hard-to-book category of “film essays,” they barely left a trace in this country. Most of Welles’s creative energies in his later years were invested in shooting an ambitious film that hasn’t (yet) reached the screen, The Other Side of the Wind, writing scripts that never made it before the camera, and trying to raise completion money from people who feared his largely undeserved reputation as a wastrel. That reputation, I can’t help thinking, stemmed as much from his corpulence as from his track record as a director; if you’re a maverick film maker weighing close to four hundred pounds and constantly in need of money, people are going to assume (however irrationally) that you’ve been gobbling up the equivalent of a movie each year.
In fact, despite his occasional budget overruns, Welles was a remarkably economical director who invested much of his own money into his work and performed cinematic miracles with modest resources. He proudly told me he used only 180 extras for the Battle of Shrewsbury sequence in Chimes at Midnight, an overwhelming distillation of the horrors of war into a percussively edited five-minute montage, which moves from the glorious spectacle of charging knights to the ignominious agony of hand to hand combat in the muddy battleground. Welles’s entire body of work no doubt cost less than one of today’s monstrously budgeted extravaganzas. The real problem with Welles was that though he functioned in a popular art form he was not the sort of ambidextrous popular artist who, as he once said of John Huston, “can make a masterpiece or turn you out a block-buster—or both.”
In the view of the critic and biographer Charles Higham, whose books on Welles are riddled with factual errors and reductive judgments, Welles’s problems in later years all boiled down to a crippling “fear of completion.” It is a facile explanation that leaves out much in the way of historical and cultural context but nevertheless contains a germ of truth. After returning to Hollywood feature film directing for the first time in nearly a decade, hoping to exorcise the RKO experience, Welles was lastingly traumatized by Universal’s takeover of Touch of Evil (1958) and his dismissal from the final stages of cutting while the studio tried to reduce the complexity of his unorthodox style.2 He never directed another Hollywood studio film, and resisted some of the occasional offers that came his way to do so, while others he didn’t resist never came to fruition; he told me in 1971 that he had turned down a chance to make a studio film in the late Sixties because he knew he no longer could get up at six o’clock every morning. That sounds flippant, but the fact was that Welles was temperamentally unable to work on an assembly line. As a member of the ensemble cast of The Other Side of the Wind throughout its five years of production (1970–1975), I saw firsthand that he preferred to work on his own schedule, as only Chaplin before him was able to do, because Chaplin also invested his own money in his films: Welles took days off when he felt like it, to think about the next scenes or simply to nap and gather his energies—and then he’d wear out his young crews by working eighteen hours straight, day after day, night after night, until they dropped or rebelled.
Welles’s reputation for not completing films had begun with his ill-fated departure for Brazil in early 1942 to make It’s All True, leaving the post-production of Ambersons in the hands of subordinates who proved unable or unwilling to stand up to studio pressure. Although Welles unquestionably bears a large share of the responsibility for what happened in his absence, it is simplistic to blame the Ambersons debacle primarily on his self-destructive tendencies, as Robert L. Carringer does in his new book The Magnificent Ambersons: A Reconstruction (University of California Press).3 Carringer, like Higham before him, downplays the combined effect of the inhospitable wartime mood and the other powerful factors that were operating against Ambersons: Welles’s feeling of patriotic obligation to make It’s All True because of his draft-deferred status; his simultaneous conflicts with RKO over that film; a disruptive change of studio administrations; and the studio’s reneging on promises to keep him involved in the cutting of Ambersons by long distance, even though he had surrendered the right of final cut in his contract.
It’s All True, a three-part film about peasant life, had to be hastily started in time for the Rio Carnival, and experienced a myriad of production calamities on the far-flung locations, including the death of a leading cast member when a raft capsized. Welles was blamed, unfairly or not, for most of what went wrong. But RKO’s displeasure with Ambersons and with It’s All True’s sympathetic treatment of impoverished blacks also contributed to its decision to pull the plug on the offbeat film: the studio’s unit production manager, Lynn Shores, complained that Welles’s “continued exploitation of the negro [sic] and the low-class element in and around Rio” was “in very bad taste.” Welles told Bogdanovich that an RKO executive watching the Carnival rushes described the footage as “a lot of jigaboos jumping up and down.”
Hollywood always looked askance at Welles after that, occasionally tossing him an offbeat crime thriller to direct (The Stranger, The Lady from Shanghai, Touch of Evil), but greenlighting only one of his pet projects (Macbeth, filmed with panache as a Republic quickie), while giving him more frequent employment as a prematurely aged, glowering character actor. His many years in European exile after the late 1940s saw him, out of necessity, embracing what François Truffaut called “his position as an avant-garde director,” evolving a looser, even more daringly idiosyncratic style in such films as Othello, Mr. Arkadin, The Trial, and Chimes at Midnight, breaking out of studio sets into expressionistically transformed natural surroundings and relying more on elaborate sleight-of-hand montage than on the long takes he favored at RKO. While his output abroad was intermittent, his difficulties completing films did not become chronic until his later years, when old stories about his youthful misadventures scared away potential investors and the films he did start shooting often were bedeviled with financial and legal problems, some of his own making, since he was never a good businessman.
But whatever anxiety Welles undoubtedly felt about his career, no “fear of completion” or surrender to feelings of victimization stopped him from continuing to shoot film until the very day of his death, while continually pouring into his work the money he earned by making himself a figure of ridicule on TV shows, in other people’s movies, and in even more demeaning commercial appearances. He paid a high price in public derision for his tenacity in continuing to make his own mostly unseen movies: the jokes gradually became conventional journalistic wisdom.
Anyone under the illusion that Welles was slothful or creatively dormant at any time of his life should start by browsing through This Is Orson Welles’s exhaustive, and exhausting, 131-page chronology of Welles’s career, which takes the reader almost day-by-day from 1918, when the subject was three (“Makes his stage debut as walk-on in Samson and Delilah at the Chicago Opera”), to October 10, 1985, when he was seventy (“OW dies of a heart attack early in the morning at his house in Hollywood while typing stage directions for the material he plans to shoot with [his cameraman, Gary Graver] at UCLA later today”). The vast body of work listed in films, TV, theater, radio, recordings, journalism, literature, and other fields would be enough for several normal lifetimes. To Welles’s great credit, his work is so varied that it can’t be categorized, and if he had been allowed to make some of his unmade film projects, it would have been even more impossible to pigeonhole him; yet that gloriously unpredictable diversity also made his work less accessible to the mass audience, by preventing the emergence of a “typical Orson Welles movie” to compete with the typical Alfred Hitchcock, Frank Capra, or John Ford movie.
Those of us who have written about Welles have only begun to describe the full richness of his career, in part because his career still is not finished. Much of Welles’s late work was left uncompleted when he died—notably The Other Side of the Wind, his satirical meditation on film making and machismo, with John Huston playing an aging. Hemingwayesque director. Welles managed to put together only a partial rough cut of the film before he died, but he did shoot virtually all the footage he needed, aside from a few insert shots. I remember Welles once directing me to look down and turn my head slowly from right to left as I spoke my lines in one scene. “Why?” I asked. “Because you’re looking at midgets!” he bellowed. “Where are the midgets?” “I’m going to shoot them later!” He never did shoot those inserts, but I believe he meant to, because I once found 8×10 glossies of midget actors strewn around Bogdanovich’s house when we were filming there.
Like the unfinished Welles movies—which also include a thriller called The Deep and a shortened version of The Merchant of Venice, as well as his decades-in-the-works adaptation of Don Quixote4—This Is Orson Welles, based on Bogdanovich’s interviews with Welles between 1968 and 1975, has had a checkered, somewhat mysterious past. The book was put aside after Welles decided he wanted to write his memoirs first (he never wrote more than a few pages before he died), and it seemed destined to be buried, like Rosebud, in some dusty warehouse before being tossed in the fire after Welles’s death because of an unpaid storage bill. “I thought from the mid-Seventies that we’d never see it,” Bogdanovich told me recently. “It was Orson’s idea to do it, Orson’s idea how to do it, and his idea not to publish it, so I couldn’t really argue.”
For such a notorious egoist, Welles showed a surprising resistance to the confessional genre of literature, going only so far in the field of formal autobiography as to produce haunting fragments for the French Vogue’s Christmas 1982 issue. Those reminiscences of his mother and father, suffused with equal amounts of wonderment and gloom, have the tantalizing effect of a door being briefly cracked open onto the darkest recesses of Welles’s psyche, and then as quickly being closed. The seriocomic word-picture of his father, eccentric inventor and bon vivant Richard Welles, ends with a startling and mysterious coup de théâtre: Welles confesses that as a boy he was “convinced—as I am now—that I had killed my father. (I’ll try to write about this later.)”
With such a topic looming on the horizon, it’s little wonder Welles resisted the autobiographical impulse his admirers and vicissitudes of fortune might otherwise have dictated. The sheer volume of the reminiscences he gave to Barbara Leaming for her 1985 Orson Welles: A Biography—which the subject was promoting with the author in his last TV appearance on The Merv Griffin Show the night before his death—seems to have overwhelmed Leaming, who uncritically adopted his point of view throughout. Welles’s apparent generosity was, in fact, a smokescreen to keep Leaming (or a less malleable biographer) from probing more deeply. “I think there is a movie in the story of somebody who’s getting a biography written about him,” Welles told her. “I think finally the biographer comes with a pistol and shoots the subject.” Leaming’s entertaining but mostly superficial book may have been all Welles thought he owed the public, but it left the reader yearning for something more substantial.
“It somehow seems fitting that in order to piece together Orson Welles’s autobiography, we have to turn to his creative work.” Jonathan Rosenbaum notes in his afterword to the unfilmed Welles screenplay The Cradle Will Rock, scheduled for publication later this year by Santa Teresa Press, a small company in Santa Barbara, California, which brought out another unproduced script from Welles’s later years, The Big Brass Ring, in 1987.5 Similar in tone to the nostalgic reminiscences contained in F for Fake and Filming “Othello,” the Cradle script (written in 1984) gives Welles’s account of his youthful adventures in 1937 while staging Marc Blitzstein’s labor opera. A landmark theatrical event that brought Welles and the WPA’s Federal Theater into fateful conflict with anti–New Deal reactionaries, the guerrilla production of Cradle in defiance of a government lockout helped hasten the end of the WPA’s experiment with a people’s theater.
Looking back in a mellow, generous, often self-critical mood, Welles pokes fun at his own self-absorbed flamboyance at a time when, according to the screenplay, he was gripped more by the sheer theatrical kick of confronting the establishment than by Blitzstein’s political message, which by the 1980s he considered dated. At the time of the production, however, he said he had been “waiting for a good worker’s play; The Cradle Will Rock is just that, offering a tale that is ideologically sound and a perfect fusion of music and drama.” Welles’s ambivalent attempts in the screenplay to put distance between himself and Blitzstein’s agitprop don’t always convince, however, and may reflect a residual anxiety over the political persecution he subsequently suffered for his own leftism at the hands of the FBI, William Randolph Hearst, the blacklist era publication Red Channels, and their cohorts, a pressure that no doubt contributed to his exile from America during the McCarthy era. 6
This Is Orson Welles, despite its large and incidental pleasures, doesn’t live up to the all-embracing autobiographical promise of its title. It’s too loosely structured and too concentrated on film making to be entirely satisfying as a substitute autobiography of a man with such a multi-faceted personality. Welles imposed the book’s free-associating organizing principle, and Rosenbaum’s editing sometimes seems weighed down by the disorderliness of the material. But given the subject’s brilliance as a raconteur it probably would have been foolish to stop him from following his own conversational course in order to rearrange the book into a tidy chronological package. “I like digressions, don’t you?” Welles remarks while discussing a joke cut by RKO from The Magnificent Ambersons. “Look at Gogol. Read the first few pages of Dead Souls again and you’ll see how one mad little digression can give reverberation and density to ordinary narrative.”
The digressions into subjects that relate only tangentially (or not at all) to film making—The War of the Worlds, comic books, FDR—or Welles’s ruminations on such diverse literary sources as Shakespeare, Tarkington, and Bram Stoker are so enthralling that one wishes for more, not less, of such asides, drawing from other aspects of Welles’s personality. Such as his comment on why he was happiest as an actor on radio: “It’s as close as you can get, and still get paid for it, to the great, private joy of singing in the bathtub. The microphone’s a friend, you know. The camera’s critic.” Or his reflection on history:
This hand that touches you now once touched the hand of Sarah Bernhardt—can you imagine that?… When she was young, Mademoiselle Bernhardt had taken the hand of Madame George, who had been the mistress of Napoleon!… Peter—just three handshakes from Napoleon! It’s not that the world is so small, but that history is so short. Four or five very old men could join hands and take you right back to Shakespeare.
The virtue of the book’s rambling style is that it allows the reader the opportunity of eavesdropping for a few hours on a great conversationalist. In the four-hour companion package of audio tapes, the pleasure can be savored even more palpably. Welles’s magisterial baritone and his great convulsing, Falstaffian laugh, accompanied by the intimate sounds of his match lighting a cigar and ice cubes clinking in his glass of Scotch, are preserved in these highlights from their conversations. After the tapes were transcribed, Bogdanovich edited them, added contextual material from production memoranda and other documents, and sent each chapter to Welles,
typed as he had requested, the left side of the page blank for him to rewrite. Eventually, a few months later, a chapter would come back, thoroughly revised, heavily rewritten at times (including some of my own remarks). I understood Orson occasionally altered things for dramatic purposes, and if it was good for the “cause” to have me a little more gauche or pushy, why would it matter?
Welles shaped the book in much the same way he edited his films: Welles’s film footage, as Truffaut once put it, was “shot by an exhibitionist and edited by a censor,” attaining an intensified musical intricacy and dialectical tension in the process. The book’s careful reshaping from the more spontaneous raw material not only gives the illusion of a free-flowing conversation but also allows Welles to skip over or obfuscate topics he doesn’t want to explore more fully or precisely.
Welles’s often merciless ragging of Bogdanovich—a very good sport and cheerful masochist—served as a sort of rough draft for the film that was germinating in Welles’s mind at the time these interviews began and whose start of production, as the tapes reveal, was triggered by something Bogdanovich said to Welles about Hollywood’s neglect of old directors. The Other Side of the Wind is centered around a birthday party for the legendary director played by John Huston, and it mocks and decries the interview process by which overly possessive film buffs, in Welles’s view, simultaneously worship and assault their idols. When the film started shooting, Bogdanovich and I were cast as a pair of fatuous interviewers (Charles Higgam [sic] and Mr. Pister) who follow Huston’s Jake Hannaford around, peppering him with incessant questions. During one scene in Hannaford’s car, I ask him, “In the body of your film work, how would you relate the trauma of your father’s suicide?”—and get thrown out of the car in retaliation.
When Bogdanovich became a celebrated director himself with The Last Picture Show in 1971, he helped Welles with the independent production of The Other Side of the Wind, even letting him live at his Bel Air mansion and shoot parts of the film there when Bogdanovich was in Europe making Daisy Miller. But the tensions between him and Welles increased considerably, especially after Bogdanovich tried and failed to find Welles a directing job in the Hollywood studios. Welles recast Bogdanovich in The Other Side of the Wind as a Prince Hal–like director and left me with most of the arcane and intrusive film-buff questions.
Welles’s resentment of what he saw as the curse of overly intellectualized probing of the artist’s mind comes across throughout the Bogdanovich interviews. “He felt like certain comics do, that if you have to explain a joke, it must be bad,” Bogdanovich reports. When Bogdanovich prods him to verbalize “the meaning of the exchange of looks [among] Prince Hal and the king and Falstaff over Percy’s body”—one of the most beautiful, purely visual scenes in Chimes at Midnight—Welles replies with exasperation, “If that isn’t clear, it speaks pretty badly for me.” He repeatedly mocks Bogdanovich for asking “one of those searching, penetrating questions I thought we’d avoid,” and admits, “The whole purpose of a book like this is what I quarrel with.” When Bogdanovich tries “to argue about your impatience with the search for themes,” Welles responds, “Luckily, we know almost nothing about Shakespeare and very little about Cervantes. And that makes it so much easier to understand their works…. It’s an egocentric, romantic, nineteenth-century conception that the artist is more interesting and more important than his art.”
But Bogdanovich was unrelenting in his quest for connections between Welles’s inner life and his work.
Bogdanovich: Why did you decide to begin Othello with the funeral?
Welles: Why not? [Laughs] I don’t know. Have another drink.
PB: Well, it couldn’t be coincidental that Kane, Othello, and Mr. Arkadin all begin with the death of the leading character….
OW: Just shows a certain weakness of invention on the part of the filmmaker.
PB: You can give me a better answer than that.
OW: Peter, I’m no good at this sort of stuff. I either go cryptic or philistine.
Of course, Welles doth protest too much, for no film maker was ever more articulate, or less of a philistine. When he turned his mind to it, as he did much of his time with Bogdanovich, Welles could give the kind of interview that justifies the existence of the process. A powerful example: when Bogdanovich made Welles “so sick, I couldn’t sleep” by telling him about John Ford and the other old directors who couldn’t find work in the “with-it” Hollywood of the late 1960s—the discussion that led Welles to start filming The Other Side of the Wind—Welles exploded: “It’s so awful. I think it’s just terrible what happens to old people. But the public isn’t interested in that—never has been. That’s why Lear has always been a play people hate.”
“You don’t think Lear became senile?” asks Bogdanovich, and Welles responds,
He became senile by giving power away. The only thing that keeps people alive in their old age is power…. But take power away from de Gaulle or Churchill or Tito or Mao or Ho or any of these old men who run the world—in this world that belongs only to young people—and you’ll see a “babbling, slippered pantaloon.”
It’s only in your twenties and in your seventies and eighties that you do the greatest work. The enemy of society is the middle class, and the enemy of life is middle age. Youth and old age are great times—and we must treasure old age and give genius the capacity to function in old age—and not send them away….
Such moments of unguarded passion are all too rare in This Is Orson Welles. Some of Welles’s sparring exchanges with Bogdanovich are wry and revealing—especially the running joke about Bogdanovich deviously steering the protesting Welles back to the painful (to him) subject of Citizen Kane—but more often we share the interviewer’s frustration over Welles’s reticence, which ultimately becomes exasperating. Reading this book helps us to understand why Welles never was able to complete a conventional autobiography. His participation in this enterprise seems half-hearted; he sits for a lengthy session of analysis but displays an almost neurotic aversion to introspection, evidently stemming from the fear of having to share his deepest feelings to the public, or from a self-protective need to portray himself as a “centerless labyrinth.”
Welles’s films show some of the same ambivalence toward the necessary process of artistic self-revelation; the twin roles of exhibitionist and censor always vied for his attention. Despite his reputation as a ham, which stemmed in part from the inescapable largeness of his body and voice, Welles never seemed entirely comfortable as an actor, and (especially in later years) he accepted parts mainly to make money to finance his directing ventures. He frequently seemed studied, guarded, and stiff on screen, taking refuge behind theatrical floridity and tongue-in-cheek jocularity. He worried that he seldom “really felt” what he was playing, and he almost never (except as Harry Lime in The Third Man) appeared on screen without a false nose and other makeup to transform his appearance. He tells Bogdanovich, “I read once—Norman Mailer wrote something or other—that, when I was young, I was the most beautiful man anybody had ever seen. Yes! Made up for Citizen Kane!” Hiding his naked face was a lifelong obsession for Welles, as if he had a terrible secret to hide, something shameful to cover up—something for which his face was his actor’s metaphor. He used makeup as “camouflage” to fend off invasion of his emotional privacy, just as, at the age of ten, he scared off bullies at Washington Grade School in Madison, Wisconsin, by carrying his makeup kit to school and making himself up with a bloody face.
In the films he directed, Welles typically played emotionally barricaded, self-disguising characters whose moral makeup was far removed from his own, or whose flaws exaggerated his own more pardonable vices and failings for dramatic effect. He hid behind the grotesque corpulence of the corrupt cop Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil, the waxen face and walrus mustache of the moribund Macao merchant Mr. Clay in The Immortal Story, or the protean features of Charles Foster Kane, revealing his feelings about their moral dilemmas less through his acting than through his intricately rhetorical and frequently ironic camerawork, giving himself a dual presence in the films. Rarely did he allow himself to express a naked emotion on screen through his acting alone, although when he did so as Falstaff, in the great rejection scene when Prince Hal/King Henry V (Keith Baxter) says, “I know thee not, old man”—a scene devastating in its simplicity—it became the defining moment of his career.
Bogdanovich recalls the “strangely conspiratorial quality Orson and I fell into almost at once,” and it was the younger man’s ability to discern the areas of greatest emotional vulnerability in Welles that made Welles try to retreat so vehemently from the revelations demanded of him. “Orson had been burned in so many places in his emotional and personal life, he was afraid of being hurt again,” Bogdanovich realized. “He preferred to talk about something new, something that wasn’t in the past, something that was possible to change.”
Bogdanovich’s patient wheedling, his willingness to put up with so much mockery, and his thorough grounding in Welles’s work counterbalance his limitations as an interviewer, which are most glaringly seen in his lack of awareness of the sociopolitical aspects of Welles’s work: of Ambersons, he confesses to Welles, “You know, it wasn’t until about the fourth or fifth time I’d seen the picture that I saw any social points.” But Bogdanovich’s tenacious cajoling of his recalcitrant subject arose from a fervent curiosity about Welles which wouldn’t take “no comment” for an answer.
“No, Peter, I have no ‘Rosebuds,”‘ Welles insists when Bogdanovich probes into Welles’s cinematic reflections of his relationship with his mother, whose death when he was nine caused him lifelong emotional devastation. But that line triggers the book’s most moving personal reminiscence, about the young orson’s stays with his father, who in his later years owned a hotel in Grand Detour, Illinois, which he operated as a retreat for his friends:
Well, where I do see some kind of “Rosebud,” perhaps, is in that world of Grand Detour. A childhood there was like a childhood back in the 1870s. No electric light, horse-drawn buggies—a completely anachronistic, oldfashioned, early-Tarkington, rural kind of life, with a country store that had above it a ballroom with an old dance floor with springs in it, so that folks would feel light on their feet. When I was little, nobody had danced up there for many years, but I used to sneak up at night and dance by moonlight with the dust rising from the floor…. Grand Detour was one of those lost worlds, one of those Edens that you get thrown out of…. I feel as though I’ve had a childhood in the last century from those short summers.
Welles’s reverie about this “marvelous little corner in time,” his own personal Twilight Zone—which he readily concedes found lasting resonance in Ambersons and his other work—comes to a painfully abrupt end when his memory inevitably turns to the fire that destroyed his father’s hotel not long before Richard Welles’s death in 1930. “Can I go now?” Welles asks Bogdanovich, and you can hear the childish plaintiveness in his voice as the chapter closes.
Strikingly similar in mood to the autobiographical fragments about his childhood in French Vogue, this story shows what we lost when Welles found that he couldn’t write a book about his life. In bringing the Grand Detour story to an elliptical conclusion, Welles barely elaborates on what his solitary dance in the moonlight meant to him, although we can take that dance as an image for the odd, lonely childhood that shaped him as an artist and to which he kept retreating symbolically for his cinematic “lost Edens”—as geographically disparate as Mrs. Kane’s Colorado boardinghouse, the Ambersons’ Indianapolis mansion, Don Quixote’s Spain, Falstaff’s medieval England. Perhaps Welles never allowed us closer to his “secret” than he did in his mysterious reference to his responsibility for his father’s death, which may have been a prototype for the betrayals of close friends and flawed father figures in his films.
Although Richard Welles’s death certificate says he died of natural causes (chronic heart and kidney disease) in a Chicago hotel, Higham’s 1985 biography Orson Welles: The Rise and Fall of an American Genius and Frank Brady’s Citizen Welles (1989) report that the elder Welles may have been a suicide. According to Barbara Leaming, “the young Orson told people that he was present at his father’s suicide,” but she thinks that didn’t literally happen and that Welles’s claim “only reflected his own intense guilt…at having betrayed Dick when he needed him.” Welles felt his alcoholic father “drank himself to death,” and blamed himself for pushing Dick Welles over the edge by listening to the advice of friends and refusing to see his father again unless he stopped drinking. This story calls to mind Peto’s epitaph of the dissolute, abandoned Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight: “The King has killed his heart.” Welles subsequently considered his action “inexcusable,” telling Leaming, “I don’t want to forgive myself. That’s why I hate psychoanalysis. I think if you’re guilty of something you should live with it.”
Welles’s reminiscences of his father and Grand Detour reverberate in This Is Orson Welles when Bogdanovich succeeds in eliciting from Welles a precise definition of his work’s thematic core. In an exchange on the gracefulness of Tarkington’s lost Eden, Bogdanovich asks, “That’s the thing you admire most, isn’t it? That and gallantry. Isn’t Ambersons as much a story of the end of chivalry—the end of gallantry—as Chimes at Midnight?” Welles corrects him by saying, “Peter, what interests me is the idea of these dated old virtues. And why they still seem to speak to us when, by all logic, they’re so hopelessly irrelevant. That’s why I’ve been obsessed so long with Don Quixote.” Welles was, in many ways, his own best critic, pointing the way for professional critics to see his work more clearly and precisely.
In talking with Bogdanovich about Joseph Cotten’s character in Citizen Kane, the drama critic Jedediah Leland, who in the bitterness of old age muses that he might have served both as Charlie Kane’s “stooge” and his only friend, Welles points out, “I’m a totally different kind of person from Jed Leland. I’m not a friend of the hero.” When dealing with Welles and other legendary directors, the young Bogdanovich cast himself in the role of “friend of the hero,” and his surprisingly intense argument with Welles about Jed Leland is one of this book’s most revealing passages.
Welles vehemently objects to Bogdanovich’s notion that Leland betrayed Kane by writing his negative review of Kane’s pathetically inept opera-singing mistress, Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore). “He didn’t betray Kane,” Welles says of Jed Leland. “Kane betrayed him. Because he was not the man he pretended to be…. If there was any betrayal, it was on Kane’s part, because he signed a Declaration of Principles which he never kept.” “Then why,” wonders Bogdanovich, “is there a feeling that Leland is petty and mean to Kane in the scene when he gets drunk?…[M]aybe one feels that Leland could have afforded to write a good review.” “Not and been a man of principle,” Welles insists. “Then why do I somewhat dislike Leland?” asks Bogdanovich. “Because he likes principles more than the man,” Welles replies, “and he doesn’t have the size as a person to love Kane for his faults.”
I suspect that Bogdanovich may have been thinking of that exchange when he wrote, “There are quite a few things I didn’t agree with Orson about in those days, but most assuredly I do now. Age and experience.” The Bogdanovich who wrote those words in his conciliatory introduction to what Welles initially proposed as “a nice little book” now has the size as a person to love Welles for his faults. Welles displayed jealousy over his protégé’s commercial success, resented the failure of Bogdanovich’s efforts to help him find work in Hollywood, and feuded with him over this book, which, Bogdanovich relates, eventually became “lost somewhere in the depths of a storage facility while I was going through a personal and financial crisis.”
When Welles accused Bogdanovich of saving the manuscript to release only after his death. Bogdanovich retrieved it and sent it back to him “with a note saying, in effect, it was his life, and here it was for him to do with as he saw fit.” Welles was “very touched” by the gesture. Bogdanovich writes of their last conversation over the telephone, shortly before Welles’s death: “We had been laughing, and then I said something about having made some terrible mistakes. He said, suddenly serious, that he had made so many mistakes, and that it seemed to be almost impossible to go through life without making an incredible number of them…. I came to realize our last conversation had been a kind of apology from both of us for having made mistakes about each other.”
Though it might have seemed so to Welles, and to Bogdanovich at many times over the past seventeen years because of the obstacles Welles placed in the way of its publication, this book is not one of their mistakes, but a fitting, if imperfect, memorial to their complex and passionate friendship.
May 13, 1993
From my 1972 book Orson Welles (Viking Press). ↩
A lengthy excerpt from Welles’s fifty-eight-page memorandum about the cutting to Universal studio chief Edward Muhl, once planned for inclusion in This Is Orson Welles, appeared in the Fall 1992 issue of Film Quarterly. Welles’s eloquent blend of diplomatic cajolery and sarcasm in arguing for his “jealous sentiments of ownership” is heartbreaking to read: “That I was denied even the right of consultation with you is a hard fact strongly hinting that, of all people, I must be the least welcome as a critic. In spite of this—and in fairness to a picture which you now describe as ‘exceptionally entertaining’—I must ask that you open your mind for a moment to this opinion from the man who, after all, made the picture.” Muhl turned a deaf ear to many of the suggestions made by Welles in the memo. ↩
I made the first attempt at a reconstruction of Ambersons, using the final shooting script, in my books Persistence of Vision; A Collection of Film Criticism (1968) and Orson Welles. The studio cutting continuity served as the basis for Carringer’s complete transcription of the original 131-minute Welles version of the film, and for This Is Orson Welles‘s thirty-six-page appendix reconstructing the missing scenes. Bogdanovich and Rosenbaum convey a more vivid sense of the lost footage than Carringer does, with the help of frame enlargements (preserved by Welles) to which Carringer apparently lacked access. Unfortunately, the frame enlargement of the original version’s haunting final shot, which Bogdanovich showed me in 1970, remains unpublished: Joseph Cotten driving away from Agnes Moorehead’s boardinghouse, his automobile overshadowed by the modern city’s polluted skyline. ↩
A version of Don Quixote assembled by Jess Franco and first shown last year in Spain at Expo 92 suffers from the film’s erratic production and post-production history. The print quality is highly variable, the editing (only partly by Welles) is often ragged and indulgent, some important scenes are missing, and the soundtrack of the English-language version is an offputting mélange of dubbed voices. Since the actors playing Don Quixote and Sancho Panza (Francisco Reiguera and Akim Tamiroff) both died before Welles could finish the film, their voices had to be supplied by the director and other actors. Even if Welles had finished it, his sometimes inspired, sometimes slapdash Quixote clearly would not have been the masterwork we might have hoped it would be. ↩
See Gore Vidal’s review, New York Review, June 1, 1989. ↩
At one point in This Is Orson Welles, Welles sarcastically compares Bogdanovich’s research files to the files of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, which, as has been revealed by James Naremore (author of the critical study The Magic World of Orson Welles), include 189 pages of reports and clippings gathered by the Bureau between 1941 and 1956 on Welles and his political views (“The Trial: The FBI vs. Orson Welles,” Film Comment, January–February 1991). ↩