Orson Welles. The Boy Wonder, the Great White Hope, the Wunderkind, the Enfant Terrible, the Quadruple Threat, the etc. etc. etc. A man of multiple ambitions and perpetual, frantic, mental motion requires more than one name to account for his being. Interestingly, each moniker too infers a sort of size and magnitude. In time, his physical self would come to mirror the enormity of his intellectual capacity. History would indicate that Orson Welles was larger-than-life, a belief that he too supported by elaborating on his own mythology. You never knew where fiction ended and truth began. However, with Orson, despite the personal BS-ing, despite the flagrant disregard for societal or artistic standards, despite an almost indefatigable urge to disturb, the purpose was always about truth: uncovering truth, discovering truth, interpreting the truth, or even reforming it. But can anyone get to the truth of Orson? Doubtful. However, by dissecting his work, we can more fully come to respect him if not completely to comprehend.
Perhaps the fact most key to understanding Orson's nature is his parentage. In effect, he was forced to pay for the flagrant sins of the father and the supposed divinity of the mother. This duality, the good and evil angels whispering in his ears, continuously pulled him apart, putting him in constant turmoil with himself. His mother was the artiste, the musician, and the ambition propelling him toward success, and his father was the seductive, debaucherous, temptation pulling him to ruin. In either case, the result was excess. There was no half-way with Orson, no dabbling, no "perhaps;" there was only full throttle, full-speed-ahead, caution be damned! From an early age, after his mother's death, Orson devoted himself to becoming the brilliant youth she had always taught him to be, indeed told him he was. In fact, his mother's lover-- and in effect, his "step-father"-- Dr. Maurice Bernstein, was perhaps more fascinated with the boy than the woman. Orson would pick up quite a few father figures in his life, all of them compelled to both foster the young man's unique intelligence and artistic penchants and perhaps vicariously live through them. Orson's power and passion for life was seductive and was perhaps more interesting to men because it was always more cerebral than emotional-- though his intoxicating presence certainly affected many women in a more sexual nature. Orson's mother taught him to approach life through his head not his heart, and this effect can be seen in all of his work- cool, calculated, intriguing, but without sentiment. After his father too passed away-- a man from whom he had grown increasingly detached over the years-- Orson carried a heavy cross of guilt, and in turn began mimicking the alcoholic's self-destructive habits. Booze, women, amphetamines, food... excess. Always excess. The stress of living up to his mother's standards and the need to defy them by embracing his father's weaknesses created quite the contradictory individual-- at once intimidating, at once compelling, and always questionable.
From his birth to the culmination of Citizen Kane, the story of Orson Welles's life looks like an impossibly perfect existence. Everything he touched turned to gold. In everything he tried, he excelled. Even his imperfections were exhultory, because they were devastating, different, and provocative. This was no ordinary boy. Quoting Shakespeare like he knew what he was talking about while still a tot, becoming the writer, director, and star of school productions at his beloved Todd School in his adolescent and teenage years, and making a smashing debut at Dublin's Gate Theater in "Hamlet" at the age of sixteen (playing Claudius and The Ghost, both decades older than himself), the fascinating youth's vigor was hypnotizing. Every patch of earth he tread upon, he altered. Via the Federal Theater Project and later the Mercury Theater Group in NY, he became the toast of the industry when he produced, wrote, directed, and sometimes starred in shocking vehicles such as "Macbeth," which he brazenly set in Haiti with an all black cast. Shakespeare was a constant fascination for Welles, and he would create several stunning interpretations of his classics over the years on stage and in film. His voice-- that superb, resounding, booming voice-- possessed a natural command, which was needed in such daunting roles and large scale productions. This voice too would lead him to radio, where he infected two-dimensional stories with a vivid and even violent life on the airwaves. Running back and forth from the stage to the recording studio, he would eventually write, direct, and perform in adaptations of Mutiny on the Bounty, Rebecca, Dracula, and most importantly The War of the Worlds, which memorably started a bit of a furor (which despite rumor was completely unintentional at the time). In doing so, he elevated the possibilities of entertainment. It was not just his performance, nor the performances of some of his favorite Mercury players (Agnes Moorehead, Joseph Cotten, or George Coulouris), but the creativity with which he delivered his interpretations that was so interesting. Imaginitive, bold, and inventive, he gave incredible detail to the sound of his broadcasts, even performing in the men's lavatory if he had to to create the illusion of a sewer. It was these qualities that made him a star before he had reached the age of 22, and these same qualities would bring Hollywood calling.
Citizen Kane remains a hot topic of debate among cinephiles. It is genius, or it is absurd. It is the greatest film ever made or the most overrated. As always with Orson-- controversy. Some found fault in the film's coldness, the lack of feeling, the objectivity. Others see this as exactly the point, and they extol its artistic achievements and technological innovations, which in effect changed filmmaking forever. The use of light, sound, camera angles, and the photography that Orson and Gregg Toland developed together kicked Hollywood in the pants and slapped America in the face. Some weren't ready for it, but ready or not, there Orson was. At the least, Citizen Kane was exciting! Not just because of the uproar it caused in the press, due to the too-close-to-home resemblance of the main character to newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, but because it indicated a new generation of filmmaking-- art imitating life and twisting it instead of glorifying it. Change, Growth, Possibility: these words were at the very core of Orson's agenda. The likeminded Charlie Chaplin was a fan of the film. Louella Parsons, Hearst's right-hand-gossip columnist, obviously was not. Today, the vote is still split. It was argued that, afterward, Orson's chances for true success were destroyed by Hearst and the latter's battle to demolish not only the film but Orson himself, (which is ironic since the film actually indicated more about Orson Welles than it did Hearst or his lover Marion Davies). But, Orson had his own help in dissolving his heretofore stellar career. There were bright moments ahead, but for the unstoppable boy who grew up too fast, Citizen Kane became the burdensome triumph he could neither duplicate nor live up to.
But oh, did he try. After Kane, Orson-- forever putting too much on his plate-- started filming three vehicles at once. The Magnificent Ambersons, Journey into Fear, and the government induced documentary promoting the "Good Neighbor Policy," It's All True. He filmed Ambersons and Journey simultaneously, jumping from one set to the next without changing wardrobe, then left them unfinished and in the hands of the studio-- RKO-- while he went off to Brazil to maintain the Panamerican goodwill initiative between the North and South Americas, only to be swept up in the majesty of the "Carnival" of Rio, the samba, and the saga of the local people. Editing the first 2 films long distance, he basically offered input that was overturned, and both Journey and Ambersons suffered while he nonchalantly remained abroad, dedicated to the task at hand. For this, he too was partly at fault for the massacred remains of both pictures. Draining the studio dry financially-- for Orson only cared about the art not the cost-- RKO finally released sub-par versions of the films that Orson had originally intended and then pulled the plug completely on It's All True, which remains unfinished to this day. The hunt for the original cut of Ambersons makes it one of the most sought after films of all time, though there is beauty in the final cut left behind. Journey into Fear, with its climactic rain-soaked ending, and the remaining footage of It's All True also bear the unmistakable Welles mystique.
In the end, it seems that Orson became overwhelmed by his own ambitions. He held such noble aspirations, but he was never able to carry things off as flawlessly as he had in his younger days. The pressure of staying on top only succeeded in knocking him off his pedestal. But he still had bright moments to come. Between his political stints-- using radio to defend the blinded, African-American war veteran Isaac Woodard, to support FDR for re-election, or to defend himself from assertions that he was a communist-- he revisited the theater, sometimes to exultant effects-- 1947's primeval reinterpretation of "Macbeth" or the racially controversial "Native Son"-- and had moments of cinematic brilliance as well. The nightmarish quality he produced in The Stranger, urging America to wake up, recognize and remember always the attrocities of WWII, the twisted and "somnambulistic" artistic achievements of The Lady from Shanghai with that incredible, indescribable final showdown in the funhouse, or the technical wizadry showcased in the four minute tracking shot of Touch of Evil-- as spellbinding as anything ol' Hitch could produce-- show that the genius was still there. His performance in The Third Man would too maintain his reputation, if only for his contribution of that cuckoo clock monologue. What is most often concurred about Welles's work is his perfect use of sound, which is unprecedented. But more telling perhaps is the visual composition. All of his films work, even when played silently, is hypnotic. Masterpieces to the eyes, one can be riveted, moved, and mesmerized even while not completely understanding what he or she is looking at. What these intercut images relay to each individual are perhaps not always effective, but they are affecting. That was Orson's purpose. He cared little what everyone thought; he cared greatly that people were thinking.
Orson's embrace of concept, of taking an idea and bending it (and perhaps breaking it) to his own unique will is what has made his work stand the test of time and continue to engage both fans and enemies. As he aged, despite different triumphs, in Chimes at Midnight for example, Orson's achievements became lost under the immensity of his polemic reputation. He became somewhat of the butt of the joke. The man who had once been the toast of the town, married to Rita Hayworth, and with all the future in the palm of his hand, was now an overweight has-been producing a slew of theatrical flops and doing vocal work on the cartoon "Transformers." To Orson's credit, he never apologized for his girth, but rather used it to full effect in his later films. Perhaps this too was indicative of his shame, a living portrait of the disgusting wreck he had become. He thus apologized and refused to apologize at once. Orson's success, however, lay not in his perfections but in his imperfections; in his daring ability to say what others wouldn't, do what others wouldn't, and try what others wouldn't dare. The result was not always popular, but it was always bold. In his case, the means justified the (at times indiscernible) ends. His eccentric, flawed, and confused body of work thus remains one of the most remarkable to ever come out of Hollywood, simply because it is the product of pure originality.
Martin Scorcese said that Orson Welles was the filmmaker who influenced a whole new generation of directors to want to make movies. Orson wasn't about offering answers, he was about asking questions. He did not want to luxuriate in ignorant bliss, he wanted to instigate intellectual warfare. He took a medium based upon pretty images and fairy tales and helped to turn them into something darker and more nightmarish and equally showed that such exploration was not a crime. While he himself may be held prisoner by his own caricatured self-- mocked even in his lifetime-- his disruption of the Hollywood agenda could possibly be the best thing that ever happened to the imaginative but often uninspired town. He is best compared to his most perfect role and his most highly acclaimed performance: Harry Lime in Carol Reed's masterpiece The Third Man. Not appearing until nearly an hour into the movie, Orson exists still as a dominant presence. The audience waits, growing increasingly anxious for his appearance, and when he finally reveals himself from out of the shadows, his insolent smirk alone produces an indescribable rush worth waiting for. Suddenly, things are more interesting, more provocative, more dangerous. You can't explain why, but Orson always seems to bring "something" to the table. He had more than his finger on the pulse of American life; he was a jolt of adrenaline in its arm. If you compare films made prior to Citizen Kane to those made after Citizen Kane, you will soon be forced to agree that we are all still his junkies.