Director Spotlight: Aspects of Orson Welles

No ordinary filmmaker, Orson Welles redefined the art and craft of cinema with Citizen Kane (1941), the quintessential story of a man who gains the world and loses his soul. It’s the ultimate cautionary American tale for a society which risked losing its humanity in its quest for capitalist power.

Famously saying that he started at the top of the film world and worked his way down, Welles alienated the righteously powerful Hearst, whom he caricatured along with Hearst’s longtime love, Marion Davies. Welles would, perhaps unfairly, mercilessly lampoon Davies to make his point. When asked how many filmic masterpieces must a great director make Welles said, “Only one.”

While Welles alienated the American elite, that elite did what it did best: attempt to undermine Welles at every turn, eliminate his funding for future films, take away his artistic license and, yes, destroy him professionally and personally.

The path Welles chose despite these almost self-created obstacles, was one of artistic brilliance and compulsive genius. The essential great director, who was said by critics and biographers to always need to battle against a studio and always need enemies to through which to forge his best work, charted his filmic course by sheer power of personality, will and persistence. And while he may have been defeated many times, he was never destroyed.

The articles in this special Director Spotlight on Orson Welles bring critical aspects of Welles’ work as a director into view. From Citizen Kane (1941) to his “mutilated masterpiece” follow-up The Magnificent Ambersons to The Trial (1962), the essayists in this collection will take you on a journey into the filmic realms and mind of this filmmaker whom many call genius.

Jonah Raskin explores whether Welles directed the films in which he, at the time, was thought to only have performed in. Sheri Chinen Biesen completes the picture of the Film Noir world of Welles in the ’40s. Andrew Grossman explores the trial something he feels to be “a study in transcendental sociology”. Guy Crucianelli delves into the world of The Magnificent Ambersons Carl Wilson considers the maestro’s masterpiece Citizen Kane, and determines whether or not this film really is a “labyrinth without a center”.

Citizen Kane came in second place to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) as “the best movie ever made”, and Welles may be placed on the back burner, so to speak, the man and his work will never be forgotten.

Hours of interviews with Welles are available online and are enormously entertaining, as is the recently published book My Lunches with Orson: Conversations Between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles edited and with an introduction Peter Biskind. The book presents the enormously funny, controversial, sometimes offensive, often loveable chatter that would come from the mouth of Welles. Here’s an example, a discussion between Welles and Richard Burton, when the latter wants to bring Elizabeth Taylor to meet Welles.

Richard Burton: Orson, how good to see you. It’s been too long. You’re looking fine. Elizabeth is with me. She so much wants to meet you. Can I bring her over to your table?

Orson Welles: No. As you can see I am in the middle of my lunch. I’ll stop by on my way out.

(Burton exits.)

Henry Jaglom: Orson, you’re behaving like an asshole. That was so rude. He actually backed away, like a whipped puppy.

As one should already know, never get between the maestro and his meals. Or his drink. It was all fuel for his genius.

It has been said that Welles made movies the way painters approached an oil painting. They would work on it awhile, put it aside and come back to it. This is, of course, much more difficult to do with a motion picture. And especially so in the age before digital video. I often wonder what would’ve become of Welles had he lived into the digital era – never running out of film and not, necessarily, having to deal with the Hollywood studios which are all, by now, entertainment wings of international conglomerates.

Welles would no doubt do what he needed to do to get a film off the ground and to realize his vision as closely to the point of inspiration. If that meant being a spokesman for a particular wine or, perhaps canned peas, then so be it. His voice and visage could sell products. Even in this reduced medium, however, he never lost his perfectionists edge and would correct the director of, say, a frozen vegetable commercial in how to pronounce a word or a sentence.

Sometimes he got a little too involved in his side jobs. Sometimes it would happen on something the set of a wine commercial, as you’ll see in the video clip below. But he would sell product for the man in order to fuel his art. This was very much in the style of the Renaissance painters. They needed patrons. As did Welles. And he found them in many strange places.

Ultimately, though, Welles’ legend will live on for as long as there is a way to watch movies — with or without the groceries.