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Orson Welles


Orson Welles

George Orson Welles (May 6, 1915 – October 10, 1985) is considered not only one of the greatest directors of film but also that of the theatre, as well as a fine actor, screenwriter, broadcaster and producer. His first feature film, Citizen Kane (1941) and last Hollywood film Touch of Evil (1958) are both universally acknowledged as important steps in the history of cinema and widely cited by critics as among the best films ever made, while his various productions with the Mercury were considered revolutionary in the theatrical world.

Early career

Welles was born in 1915 in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He had an unusual childhood, being somewhat of a prodigy, and his personal relationships suffered as a result. His mother died when he was nine, and his father, Richard Head Welles, receded into the past, a drunkard.

Welles performed and staged his first theatrical productions while attending the Todd School for Boys in Woodstock, Illinois and was brought under the guidance of the principal, Roger Hill, who became a surrogate father to Welles. He made his stage debut at the famous Gate Theatre in Dublin, Ireland in 1931 when he talked himself onto the stage and appeared in small supporting roles, and by 1934 was a radio director/actor in the United States, working with some of the cast that later became the Mercury Theatre. In that year, the brown-eyed actor married the actress and socialite Virginia Nicholson. That year too, he co-directed a seldom seen short silent film, unintended for commercial release, The Hearts of Age, which also featured Nicholson in addition to Welles himself.

Welles drew a great deal of attention in 1937 with a production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar set in Fascist Italy and a voodoo-themed version of Macbeth featuring a primarily African American cast. Shortly afterward, he and producer John Houseman founded the Mercury Theatre company after they worked together on The Cradle Will Rock.

Welles began playing The Shadow in late 1937; his deep voice suited the role well. In the summer of 1938, Welles and the Mercury Theatre began weekly broadcasts of short radio plays based on classic or popular literary works. Their October 30 broadcast of that year was an adaptation of The War of the Worlds. This brought Welles his first public notoriety on a national level—the program created panic among some listeners who found it completely convincing. Welles's adaptation of H. G. Wells' classic novel simulated a news broadcast, cutting into a routine dance music program to describe the landing of Martian spacecraft in Grover's Mill, New Jersey. The innovative broadcast was realistic enough to frighten many in the audience into believing that an actual Martian invasion was in progress. Recordings of the broadcast are still available (see old-time radio and also the UK Region 2 DVD of Citizen Kane). The publicity that resulted from this led to the offer of a three-picture Hollywood contract from RKO.

Welles in Hollywood

Welles toyed with various ideas for his first project for RKO, settling briefly on an adaptation of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness before ultimately rejecting it. RKOs budget projections made it impractical. In a display of his avant garde sensibility, Welles planned to film the action entirely from the protagonist's point of view. With his initial ideas bearing no fruit, Welles finally found a suitable project in an idea suggested by screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz. Initially called American, it would eventually become Welles' first feature film, Citizen Kane (1941).

Welles was once again the centre of controversy with Citizen Kane. The gossip writer Louella Parsons convinced the yellow-press magnate, William Randolph Hearst, that he was the basis for Kane, with the result that Hearst's media empire boycotted the film. On its release, this event overshadowed the film's radical formal innovations. Welles is said to have sardonically remarked, concerning Hearst's attitude, that if he were to do a movie about the journalism magnate, the fact would be more grand and shockingly unbelievable than the fiction. This possibly apocryphal quote is uttered by Liev Schreiber (as Welles) in the 1999 TV movie RKO 281.

Welles' second film for RKO was the more traditional The Magnificent Ambersons, adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Booth Tarkington, and on which RKO executives hoped to make back the money lost by Citizen Kane's relative commercial failure.

Simultaneously, Welles worked with his Mercury Theatre fellows on a spy thriller, Journey Into Fear, which he co-wrote with Joseph Cotten. In addition to acting in the film, Welles was also a producer. Direction was credited solely to Norman Foster, but the film contains several expressionistic sequences indicating input by Welles. Welles denied having directed the film, but the visual style is very similar to his credited works. Whatever the case, Welles played a major role in its production, but he expressed disappointment at the finished product.

During the production of Ambersons, Welles was asked to make a documentary film about South America on behalf of the U. S. Government. Welles left the United States to begin shooting this documentary after putting together the first rough cut of The Magnificent Ambersons, on the understanding that further editing decisions would be carried out via telegram. At this point RKO, in a perilous financial situation and fearing another commercial failure, wrested control of the film from Welles' Mercury Productions staff, cut over fifty minutes of footage, and added a reshot, upbeat ending: the cut footage, including Welles's original ending to the film, has been lost, apparently permanently. This event marked the beginning of a recurring pattern in Welles' Hollywood career of damaging executive interference. Ironically, Welles' South American documentary, entitled It's All True, never saw completion in Welles' lifetime. The surviving footage was released in 1993.

In 1946, International Pictures released The Stranger, starring Edward G. Robinson and Loretta Young as well as Welles himself. Sam Spiegel produced the film, which gave Welles an opportunity to salvage—briefly—his reputation in Hollywood. A noir-ish suspense film about the hunt for a Nazi war criminal, The Stranger was Welles' only commercial success as a director. Welles supposedly made the film to prove that he could make a conventional picture within time and budget constraints. He followed The Stranger with another noir drama for Columbia Pictures, The Lady from Shanghai. Welles played the protagonist, while his second wife, Rita Hayworth, played one of the villains. Hayworth said of Orson Welles, "...a most brilliant auteur and lover. I just wish he hadn't become so fat. It affected his performance in movies and the bedroom." Like The Magnificent Ambersons, The Lady from Shanghai suffered heavy editing by its studio, with approximately an hour removed from Welles' final cut. The excised portions are believed to be lost permanently. Welles' notes for the film suggest that these portions would have aided audiences' comprehension of the story. Despite the editing, the theatrical cut still contains many examples of Welles' Expressionist film-making. Once released, the film was savaged by critics for its convoluted plot, and audiences disliked Hayworth as a villain. Welles' marriage to Hayworth—already troubled during filming—ended shortly after the production wrapped.

Welles changed studios once again, moving to Republic Pictures, a studio with a reputation for making B movies. The move marked a return to Shakespeare for Welles—he chose to direct and star in an idiosyncratic production of Macbeth. Working with a very limited budget, Welles fashioned a Macbeth that emphasized the darkness of the play's themes and characters. Unfortunately for Welles, the finished film once again proved unpalatable to the movie-going public.

Frustrated by his experience with the studio system, Welles left Hollywood in 1948. The following year, the six-foot, 230-pound actor made a notable appearance in front of the camera. In Graham Greene's The Third Man, Welles (as Harry Lime) gave the infamous "Cuckoo Clock" speech. 'In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love—they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.' This is the only piece of dialogue in the film which Greene himself did not write: Welles penned it himself and insisted that it be put in. Greene is reputed to have hated it (possibly because the cuckoo clock was not, in fact, a Swiss invention).

From 1949 to 1952, Welles worked on Othello, filming the entire work on location in Europe and Morocco. Despite winning the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, the film was never given a general release in the United States and played only in New York and Los Angeles. In 1992, this film was restored from a nitrate negative that had been feared lost and went on a successful theatrical run in America. The entire score was rerecorded, and the result is a powerful rendition that belies the usual view that Welles had lost his touch. The cinemetography is remarkable, and the entire effect gripping.

In 1958, he made his final return to Hollywood when Charlton Heston convinced the studio to give Welles a shot at writing and directing the adaptation of Whit Masterson's pulp novel in Touch of Evil. Despite being filled with revolutionary lighting and camera techniques, as well as what is obviously a precursor to Hitchcock's Psycho, the film was once again wrestled from Welles' hands and severely cut down and reshot. Welles protested, even going so far as to write a 58-page memo, but his efforts were in vain. The film was left to rot as the B-picture behind Harry Keller's The Female Animal, but was widely praised across Europe, awarded the top prize at the Brussels World's Fair by judges (and then critics) Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, who both cited it as being highly influential on their own respective debuts, The 400 Blows (1959) and Breathless (1960). (In 1998, editor Walter Murch, working from the original memo and a workprint version, restored the film to Welles's original vision.)

Casting off Hollywood over numerous bad experiences, Welles' spent the rest of his directorial career in Europe, his films self-financed from acting fees or, later, funded by sympathetic producers. On almost all of these projects he retained final cut, but the independence thus gained also resulted in drastically reduced budgets and technical facilities - The Trial came about when he was offered a list of public-domain novels to adapt, Chimes at Midnight was filmed on-and-off for years and F for Fake was pieced together from a previous 50-minute documentary. Despite such setbacks, some of Welles' best work was produced during this period from 1948 until his death in 1985.


A lesser known, but still important, aspect of Welles' career was his work in television. The Orson Welles Sketchbook (1955) was created for the BBC and featured Welles telling stories and drawing pictures to illustrate them. The director also created Around the World with Orson Welles (1955) for the BBC. In this series he gleefully experimented with a film-essay format, foreshadowing the later >F for Fake (1974). The Fountain of Youth (1958) was made for American TV and in it Welles offers some possibilities for expanding the medium's vocabulary. The Immortal Story (1968) was filmed for French television and stars not only Welles himself, but also Jeanne Moreau, one of the most loved actresses of the French New Wave cinema; based on a short story by Isak Dinesen, it is a spare and somber meditation on old age, isolation, and the inability to create. One of his most playful efforts was Portrait of Gina (1958), in which the director/narrator wanders through Italy, finally arriving at Gina Lollobrigida's home at the end of the film. Welles continued to work in TV through the 60s, 70s and 80s, but little of the work he directed from this period was ever broadcast. A version of The Merchant of Venice (1969) was not completed because a reel was stolen and never recovered. Clips from unfinished TV projects appear in the documentary Orson Welles: The One-Man Band (1995), a fascinating but bittersweet look at many of the director's varied efforts,

Unfinished projects

Welles' exile from Hollywood and reliance on independent finance meant that many of his later cinema projects were filmed in a piecemeal fashion and some were not completed at all. In the mid 1950s Welles worked on a film adaptation of Cervantes' Don Quixote, initially on a commission from CBS television. CBS was unhappy with the original half hour television play and rejected the footage. Welles gleefully took this as an opportunity to expand the film to feature length, developing the screenplay to take Quixote and Sancho Panza into the modern age (an idea that later formed the basis of Jean-Marie Poiré's Les Visiteurs). Filming continued in a fragmentary fashion for a number of years whenever cast and crew could be assembled in one place. The project was finally abandoned with the death of Francisco Reiguera, the actor playing Quixote, in 1969. An incomplete version of the film was released in 1992.

In 1970 Welles began shooting The Other Side of the Wind. Finance was from a number of sources, the largest of which being an Iranian company based in Paris and run by the brother-in-law of the Shah of Iran. The film is apparently the story of the efforts of a film director (played by John Huston) to complete his last Hollywood movie and is largely set at a lavish party. Although in 1972 the film was reported by Welles as being "96% complete" its legal ownership became a matter of dispute. Argument continued for a number of years until the 1979 Iranian Revolution effectively consigned it to a legal limbo. The negative remained in a Paris vault until in 2004 Welles's friend Peter Bogdanovich (who also acted in the film) announced his intention to resolve the legal difficulties and complete the production. Footage from the film is included in the documentary Working with Orson Welles (1993)

Other unfinished projects include an adaptation of Charles William's The Deep, abandoned due to the death of Laurence Harvey despite being one scene away from completion and The Big Brass Ring, the script of which was adapted and filmed by US-director George Hickenlooper in 1999.

Mark Millar wrote an article about a failed Orson Welles Batman project. This generated a considerable amount of buzz, especially on Ain't It Cool News, but the rumor has since been proven false. Welles did, at one point prior to Kane, consider reprising his role as Lamont Cranston for a Shadow film project. But, as with the mooted film adaptation of War of the Worlds, he opted to forego these commercial projects in favor of more personal works.

Final years

A man known for his large appetites, Welles became extremely overweight in his later years, topping out at more than 350 pounds. He capitalized on his image in various advertising campaigns for certain brands of wines, hot dogs, and correspondence courses. A bootleg of the recording session for one of his later commercials still circulates on the Internet and elsewhere, often known simply as Frozen Peas. In the recording, Welles can be heard brazenly chastising the commercial's producers for its poor script and their "impossible, meaningless" directions, before walking out on the session, telling them that "no money is worth this." (This incident was later satirized on SCTV with John Candy playing Welles, trying and failing to get through a reading of Good King Wenceslas before storming off set with the same lines as on the bootleg. Another bootlegged recording features a clearly inebriated Welles struggling, and failing, to get through his lines in a commercial for a California champagne).

During his career he won one Oscar and was nominated for a further four. One of his most notable film appearances was as Cardinal Wolsey in A Man for All Seasons (1966). In 1971 the Academy gave him an Honorary award "For superlative artistry and versatility in the creation of motion pictures".

After dieting and losing 50 pounds, Welles died of a heart attack in Hollywood, California at the age of 70 on October 10, 1985 (the same day as Yul Brynner). The final role Welles performed was that of the planet-eater Unicron in the animated Transformers: The Movie, recording his lines mere weeks before his passing. However, it was not his last appearance on the screen, as the previously-filmed 1987 independent movie Someone To Love, was released two years following his death. His last TV appearance was in the introduction of the episode "The Dream Sequence Always Rings Twice" of the series Moonlighting. Welles also recorded a narration for the 1987 re-release of The Alan Parsons Project's Tales of Mystery and Imagination shortly before his death.

Welles' ashes were placed at the estate of a friend in Ronda, Spain, at his request. Some reports mention that some of his ashes may have been scattered in the town's famous Plaza de Toros, the oldest bullfighting ring in Spain that is still used. Prominent critic Geoff Andrew has said, 'He remains that rarity – a genius of the cinema.'

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