Hate for Orson Welles, Italian Style

For having created what is often called “the greatest film ever made” with Citizen Kane (1941), Orson Welles was shown relatively little respect in his lifetime. Even though his reputation was somewhat refurbished in the ’60s and ‘70s, to the point where he was given a Lifetime Achievement award and recognized as a major influence by young filmmakers worldwide (most notably Jean-Luc Godard and Peter Bogdanovich), Welles’s talents were sorely rated and misjudged for the majority of his career.

It all started well. Barely into his tender 20s, Welles had early success in theater, with unique Shakespearean adaptations — a fascist-themed Julius Ceasar, a voodoo Macbeth — and radio, most notoriously with his mass panic-inducing War of the Worlds broadcast (1938). Such artistic and popular triumphs and troublemaking had made him practically a household name, and instigated his perhaps inevitable invitation to the ultimate artistic playground known as Hollywood. (Welles stated famously that Hollywood’s resources were like the world’s biggest train set.)

And thus began the resentment. Right away, old time Hollywood held against him his unprecedented first-timer’s carte blanche deal, the sweetest of them all: The right to final cut on his first feature. Welles, along with cinematographer Gregg Toland and screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz, went on to show Hollywood just what its sophisticated toys were capable of, and the industry couldn’t forgive him revealing the full scope of its secrets to itself.

Welles demonstrated the magic a camera could conjure in the hands of a master magician, and Hollywood resented it, whether because of his youth, his confidence, his impudence or all three. Though nominated for numerous Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Actor, Citizen Kane went on to win only one, for Best Original Screenplay.

Things only got worse. Welles’s second feature, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), was re-cut and even re-shot against his wishes, and funding for future products withheld following increasing charges of profligacy, self-indulgence and egomania. Welles was forced to take sub-par acting roles in order to finance his own projects, and even when the funding was forthcoming, as for his idiosyncratic take on film noir, The Lady From Shanghai (1947), the film was taken out of his hands, and cut and pasted against his initial wishes, perhaps because Welles had the audacity to dye the luscious red locks of his then-wife Rita Hayworth, Hollywood’s glamour girl, platinum blonde.

Along with allegations of profligacy came fresh accusations of completion anxiety and, as for many other filmmakers in that politically tense era, Communism. The national bad rap had begun.

In hopes of a more independent style of filmmaking, freed from the bureaucracy of a system that could never quite handle his adventurous talent, and a national climate that was becoming more and more hostile to his liberal politics, Welles flew to Europe. And yet, as badly as he was treated by Hollywood, it turns out it was even worse in Italy.

Alberto Anile’s Orson Welles In Italy explores this relatively unknown portion of the director’s career, from his first plane-landing in Rome to his final take-off back to the United States a mere six years later. The book details the costs, both personal and financial, of Welles’s time in Italy, particularly the making of Othello (1952), a production fraught with cast, crew and location changes, and the critical drubbing the director took from Italy’s leading and not-so-leading intellectuals and film critics.

The words used most often in regards to Welles’s Italian journey are “exile”, “escape”, “fled” — all crisis terms. But “fled” implies running from something, whereas Welles was also, in a sense, moving toward something: In a word, money. The financiers in Hollywood saw fit to withhold funding based on impressions, whether true or false, of professional recklessness. Since American bread wasn’t forthcoming, Italian bread would do just as well.

But Welles was in for a rude awakening, as the translator’s preface to Orson Welles in Italy makes succinctly clear: “Having left Hollywood to make films independently, Welles found his reputation in Italy tarnished by the Hollywood films he needed to act in to finance his own projects. Un-American in America, too American in Italy; a Communist sympathizer at home, the proponent of an aesthetics implicated with Fascism abroad.”

In many ways, a misunderstanding of Welles’s aesthetic was the main source of Italy’s mistreatment of him. Due to the wartime embargo on the importation of American movies, most everyone in Italy had not yet even seen Welles’s films, not even his supposed “masterpiece” Citizen Kane. Thus, when he arrived in Italy, he was known primarily as a radio hoaxer and Rita Hayworth’s husband (and soon to be ex-husband), “a strong-looking yet baby-faced man who had won the heart of the world’s most beautiful woman”. Impressions of him were based solely on international hearsay, as Anile indicates:

The aversion of Italian film critics to Welles should be viewed in light of several factors: the influence of the propaganda of the American media machine, which depicted him as an overexcited narcissist and buffoon, and the conviction held by many critics that serious artists and filmmakers were shyly retiring, spiritually elevated people who shunned the limelight.

Certainly Welles was no wallflower. Upon his arrival, and throughout his Italian stay, he continually and impulsively scheduled press conferences, announcing projects (which too often came to naught), lecturing in fractured Italian on the merits and demerits of Hollywood, and, most heinously to Italian minds, denigrating the aesthetic importance of Neorealism, which was considered, at that point, the greatest achievement not just of Italian cinema but cinema in general.

Anile includes a reconstruction of Welles’s first press conference “based on articles in the leading newspapers”, as well as excerpts from many others, so one gets a good sense of the baiting between the Italian press and Welles:

Is it true you are thinking of making a film about Mussolini and will play the dictator yourself?…you look a little like him, don’t you think?

OW: I am offended!

What is your opinion of critics?

OW: Critics are harmful, especially when they give prizes and criticize.

[from a female correspondent] Do women like you?

OW: No, they don’t like me much, but on the other hand I admire them. Such a shame they’re so costly!…

So you avoid them?

OW: Of course! Especially if they are nosy and disrespectful, like you!”

Welles is most prescient when a critic asks what he thinks of Hollywood:

OW: Hollywood learns nothing and teaches nothing anymore. The monstrous amount of money required to make a film, any American film, the different sorts of audiences we have to appeal to, the conservatism of businessmen and financiers in Hollywood — interested in recouping the outlay — make it hard to get off the beaten track.

When the film embargo was lifted and Welles’s films were finally seen in Italy, the antagonism toward him only increased. As Welles’s aesthetic was the opposite of the bare bones, amateurs only no-style of Italian neorealism — evident in the work of such hallowed directors as Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini — the Italian press let loose with mean-spirited barrages of “baroque fascism” and anti-formalism, abusing what they considered Welles’s “all style/no substance” aesthetic.

When Welles’s Macbeth (1948) — a spooky soup of high-style acting and bold long takes — premiered at the Venice Film Festival of 1948, the “critics savaged the film.” Anile quotes the reviews, whose tone is typified here: “…the worst kind of theater…[a]n overblown attempt to astound and confound…” or “…the most mistaken film ever shown in Venice.”

Anile concludes:

The attack on Macbeth became an attack on Welles and, above all, a stringent defense of neorealism, as a genre, as culture, as an ideology — as opposed to the barbarian abstraction a la Welles […] That is what Welles had become after less than a year in Italy: a poor man’s populist and mesmerizer. The 1948 Venice Film Festival marked the end of Italy’s [tenuous] love affair with Orson Welles. Far from home, instead of finding refuge from Hollywood, Welles had found in Italy another country that didn’t understand him […] Massacring Welles became a favorite pastime of Italian intellectuals, an increasingly vicious circle.

Orson Welles In Italy reads like a lesson in self-punishment. Though Welles eventually won the support of individual critics, and nearly acquired one wife (Lea Padovani) before actually acquiring another (Paola Mori), his stay in the country seems a form of prolonged masochism. Anile intersperses his chapters with recent interviews with film critics, most of whom have not changed their opinions of the director.

Thus the generally accepted notion that Welles was rated higher in Europe than in his home country is shown to be as false as all those artificial noses he was so fond of throughout his career. (Anile includes an amusing tale of misplaced false noses, noses that Welles took quite seriously. As the proud bearer of a big ol’ Italian schnozz myself, I sympathize with his obsessive belief that a nose provides people a handy shorthand grip on character.)

Where America’s distrust of Welles was more insidious, tied up with a sort of national if resentful pride in having fostered such a genius in the first place, the Italians were flat-out mean, digging at Welles personally when they couldn’t or wouldn’t understand him professionally. Indeed, the attacks became so personal as to solicit from Welles a libel lawsuit.

Alberto Anile’s Orson Welles In Italy is a key corrective resource for an under-examined portion of Welles’s career and life. Anile’s extended examination of the disjointed production of Othello alone — Welles’s only “Italian” film — is worth the price, as it relates the frustrating, even maddening chaos in which Welles was obliged to work, and in spite of which he was still able to produce such a fine, inventive film. Othello also prompts Anile’s most sustained film analysis, rightly positioning Welles, over Laurence Olivier, as the greatest Shakespearean filmmaker. (See also Richard Brody’s New Yorker article, “Orson Welles, Our Shakespeare”, 22 November 20130)

The final word goes to Welles: “I don’t make films, I carry out experiments. Everything I do is experimental.”

RATING 8 / 10