Orson Welles: American Maverick

The scene is perfectly set, full of trickery and magic: from a seemingly abandoned train station, a towering figure of a man in a cape and a hat emerges out of a cloud of smoke. The man decides to do a few magic tricks for a couple of children and is caught by the knowing gaze of a beautiful and exotic looking woman, dressed in fur. She registers a look of slight disapproval at the man in the cape, as if she caught a child fumbling through a cookie jar. But her disapproval quickly melts away and she forgives the man for being playful.

“Up to your old tricks, I see,” says the beautiful woman.

“Why not?” says the man in a rather booming and distinctive voice. “I’m a charlatan.” 

With that, he gives her a mischievous smirk betraying his true sentiments. The man is not offering a confession or looking for absolution but is instead offering his own assessment of any expert who might wish to judge him a charlatan. 

The man in the cape is the great actor and director, Orson Welles (1915-1985), in one of his later films, “F for Fake” (1973). Welles, a charlatan? Of course, this description is preposterous and untrue, and Welles himself said it in jest. His grin, both devious and utterly innocent tells us something quite the opposite: Welles is asserting his artistic superiority yet he really doesn’t care what he is called, whether by the critics, “experts,” or even his loyal audience. Orson Welles cared only about one thing: making great movies.

One Man’s Fight Against the Establishment

It would be all too easy and lazy to dismiss Orson Welles as a “has-been”—someone who quickly rose to fame and then crashed, disappearing from the public eye. Welles is usually captured in the American imagination as three personalities: a radio broadcaster who delivered the infamous “War of the Worlds” broadcast that scared many people into believing an alien attack was underway in rural New Jersey; a director of the best American film ever made, “Citizen Kane” (1941); and a spokesperson for Paul Masson wine, Japanese whiskey, and frozen peas. Welles’ weight problem, the subject of many jokes (some of which he didn’t mind, as he often made fun of himself), is too often the focus of many critics and people who worked with him. These are all beside the point. They constitute such a small part of who he was that they obscure the big picture. 

In many ways, Welles lived thousands of lifetimes in just one life—whether it was in acting or in innovating new cinematic forms. Welles was the founder of what we now call “independent cinema,” even as most so-called “independent filmmakers” are nothing more than the fakers Welles so obviously abhorred. The only other American film director who can authentically claim the mantle of independent filmmaker is John Cassavetes, who, like Welles, hated the phoniness and corruption for which Hollywood was known.

Naturally, Welles was aware that he was not a “joiner.” He didn’t join any clubs of any kind. He was too free and supremely confident in that freedom to submit his personhood to any authority, let alone any creative authority coming out of Hollywood. In his book, Whatever Happened to Orson Welles: A Portrait of an Independent Career (2006), the Welles scholar Joseph McBride singles out some of Welles’ more vocal pronouncements about Hollywood. 

Even as early as 1939, when Welles first came to Hollywood, he was considered a man to watch. His anti-establishment credentials were fully perceived, in other words. Welles recalls that he was considered a

. . . terrible maverick . . . I was sort of 40 or 30 years ahead of my time . . . a sort of ghost of Christmas future. There was the one beatnik, you know, there was this guy with a beard who was going to do it all by himself. I represented the terrible future of what was going to happen to that town. So I was hated and despised, theoretically, but I had all kinds of friends among the real dinosaurs, who were awfully nice to me. And I had a very good time. But I believe that I have looked back too optimistically on Hollywood. Because my daughter has a group of books about Hollywood that she bought, I don’t know, probably vainly looking for references of her father in them. And I took to reading them lately. And I realized how many great people that town has destroyed since its earliest beginnings—how almost everybody of merit was destroyed or diminished, and how the few people who were good who survived, what a great minority they were . . . And I take my own life out of it and see what they did to other people, I see that the story of that town is a dirty one, and its record is bad.

This is most certainly a moment of honest self-reflection on Welles’ part. He was quite capable of that, despite his constant humor and laughter, which can suggest some kind of avoidance of life’s realities. He may have fashioned himself into that figure of a magician, of the “Great Orsini,” who laughs loudly and boisterously, but do not be fooled: Welles was a true artist. He saw more clearly than the rest of humanity what this very humanity is made of, what its joys and sorrows are, its faults, and attempts at perfection. The movie establishment, naturally, was not particularly interested in looking deeply into the question of what it means to be human.

The fact that Welles had no regard for anything other than his films did not help his cause, and this was especially true in his first film, “Citizen Kane” (1941). The sheer audacity to make a film based almost entirely on the life of William Randolph Hearst, the publishing magnate, was palpable in this 25-year-old dynamo. Not only did he challenge every possible convention in the business of technical filmmaking (his employment of different camera angles alone changed the trajectory of filmmaking forever), but the barely veiled correlations to Hearst’s life was what got Welles into a heap of trouble. Hearst did not like the way his mistress, Marion Davies, was portrayed in the film. In “Citizen Kane” she is an empty-headed bimbo incapable of good acting, although in reality was quite an actress and a comedienne. This caused Hearst to want to destroy Welles at any cost. 

Since he had power over the newspaper industry, Hearst began circulating rumors that Welles was a Communist—an insult that at that time turned the public against the person so accused. Of course, Welles was never a member of the Communist Party. 

But there was also a psychological component of establishment Hollywood’s rejection of Welles. Any figure in any field who demonstrates the potential to disrupt the machinery churning out secure and profitable projects is bound to be hated. Individual creativity under such circumstances is often scorned, and as Joseph McBride points out, “Welles serves as a perfect whipping boy for those in the film industry and in the media who uncritically worship the imperatives and products of the commercial system.” 

Welles most definitely was a mischievous man and he had no qualms about causing certain disruptions. But these disruptions were more along the lines of explorations in art, rather than deliberate salvos aimed at film studios. After all, he needed the structure of the studio in order to make movies. But oftentimes, collectivism wins the battle over individual vision.

What is most ironic is the fact that this brilliant American filmmaker was unable to be an individual in America. This certainly points to a sad state of affairs when it comes to individual liberty and what it means to be an artist in America. The American consciousness somehow rejected Welles despite the fact that Welles never abandoned it. When he died, many obituaries continued the utter fiction that Welles only made one great film—“Citizen Kane”—and the rest of his life was spent in sad isolation, a tragic end of what could have been a great career. 

Even his collaborator in the Mercury Theater productions, John Houseman (the infamously cranky professor in “The Paper Chase,” 1973) contributed to this unfair and untrue portrayal of Welles: “If there was a downfall, then it was entirely of his own doing. I mean, nobody stopped him from producing more ‘Citizen Kanes.’” 

The dismissiveness of that statement is self-evident. How can any self-respecting artist bring himself to engage in some “wash, rinse, repeat” cycle of creating art? Such an approach is the very definition of an artistic fraud. Commenting on the various negative obituaries of Welles, Joseph McBride writes, “Scorning Welles as a tragic failure of gargantuan proportions seems to satisfy a public need (at least in America) to point a finger at an archetypal ‘spoiled artist,’ to bring genius down to the level of everyday mediocrity.”

But did the American audience truly reject Welles’ contribution to film? Or should we blame the film studios, most notably RKO Pictures, whose administrators and producers repeatedly butchered Welles’ films in order to make them more ‘accessible’ to mainstream audiences? Welles’ second feature-length film, “The Magnificent Ambersons” (1942) certainly suffered such a fate. 

This particular film was an adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s eponymous novel that centered on one family’s magnificence and its loss. The film primarily focuses on the dark side of the unraveling of the family, which is paralleled with the invention of the automobile. As everything is becoming faster and more industrialized, the Ambersons can’t seem to or don’t want to catch up and instead live in a reality that resembles more nostalgia than the hard facts of life.

Just like in “Citizen Kane,” Welles excelled here at new and innovative techniques in filmmaking. By this point, that probably wouldn’t have bothered the studio executives but after screening the entire film to a few select audiences, they weren’t pleased with the reception, and thus embarked on what ended up being the greatest ever mutilation of a film in Hollywood.

Almost 50 minutes were cut and a new ending was shot, one that was “happier” since Welles’ ending was far too grim. The logic of the studio executives was that the film wasn’t going to make much money unless there is a happier ending. Pearl Harbor was just attacked, and who wants to watch a dark and gloomy film about a bunch of American aristocrats?

According to Joseph McBride, some of the producers on “The Magnificent Ambersons” also lied to Welles about the budget, informing him that he was over budget when in reality he was under budget. The conversations between studio executives reveal a series of paranoid and vindictive attacks on Welles at one point even entertaining a plan to throw Welles to “the authorities,” whomever those were supposed to be. One can only imagine. The missing 43 minutes of film reels allegedly were destroyed. At least, the studio executives revealed in their conversations that the footage needed to be destroyed. Whether it happened is impossible to know at this point. It may yet turn up in some basement of some bar or a warehouse that has nothing to do with storing film reels.

Welles faced a similar problem with his brilliant work of film noir, “Touch of Evil” (1958). Initially, when the film was released, it was shortened, and badly edited. Welles was so angry that he sent a 58-page memo to the producers with strict and specific instructions on how the film should look. They didn’t listen. It was only decades later that the film was edited by Walter Murch according to Welles’ exact instructions. Murch said that Welles “. . . was a guy who was 20 to 25 years ahead of his time. That was his glory and why he had such problems. Hollywood doesn’t like people who are ahead of their time. They like people who are just ahead of their time, like six seconds ahead of their times, because those persons make the most money.”

It is generally accepted that Welles was at times difficult to work with but he was also a consummate professional and, according to many actors, a very fast-moving film director. He may not have been Mr. Sunshine but he certainly did not deserve to have his work thrown to the vulgar wolves who knew nothing of film as an elevated art form. Welles was a master at exploring human interiority and no director since has achieved his incredible level of precision when it comes to the development of characters as well as cinematic innovations.

Cecil Beaton/Condé Nast via Getty Images

Reality or Illusion

It is often said that all of philosophy is just a series of footnotes to Plato, and the same can be said of cinema and Welles: almost every cinematic expression that came after “Citizen Kane” owes something to Orson Welles. Yet if one is continuously misunderstood and not accepted by the establishment governing one’s industry, then how does one manage to continue to create? 

Will the artist break at some point because of the slow disappearance of the essence that makes him an artist? Some might but Welles never did. 

After he directed “Citizen Kane,” Welles went on to direct 11 more feature-length films. And then, there is also an incredible amount of his unfinished work. He was often accused of being fearful and it is suggested that it was fear that kept him from finishing many films. But this is little more than ridiculous psychologizing; it couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, the reason many of Welles’ projects were interrupted was not that he was flighty or had some mental hang-up about completion. It had simply to do with the fact that he so often would run out of money. That was the reason he did all those silly commercials: his devotion to art was so strong that he fell in love with this “crazy profession” of movie-making. He couldn’t extricate himself from the magic or the hold that movies had on him.

Although he may not have been fearful, there was one aspect of Welles’ expression as an artist that, at times, had negative effects on his process. Film critic Molly Haskell points out that Welles had “almost debilitating dissatisfaction that sprang from the very nature of his genius: an overabundance of ideas. . . . Because he was a master of so many (too many?) of the facets of the cinema—cutting, staging, camera movement and framing, dialogue, sound, and performance—there was always some new angle to try. Every film contained many films, unrealized possibilities.”

This is not an easy predicament for an artist. On one hand, ideas and inspiration are constantly flowing and Welles, as a director, could envision all of them. Yet, the unstoppable stream of possibilities could also render him silent, incapable of realizing anything at all. 

Ever since he was a boy, Welles loved magic tricks. He was fascinated by the response of the audience, while being, quite literally, the center of attention. According to one of Welles’ biographers, Frank Brady, Welles was introduced to the world of magic by Dr. Bernstein (his mother’s partner and a surrogate father). Welles took to it, and “to further Orson’s apprenticeship as a magician, Dr. Bernstein took him backstage at the theater where Houdini was performing so he could meet the master magician and escapologist. Impressed by the child’s knowledge of the art of magic through the ages and his grasp of the technical aspects of the craft, Houdini taught the boy a simple but effective trick with a red handkerchief.”

In many ways, Welles’ artistic drive and hunger had a lot to do with the way he grew up. He always had to prove himself with some kind of a performance, and later in life described himself as a very “precocious child,” which probably was not pleasant for many people.

Welles’ parents divorced very early on in his life; his mother died when he was 9 years old, and his father died when he was just 15. These were the great tragedies and sorrows in Welles’ life which, undoubtedly, he carried with him throughout his career. He was educated in an unconventional way—he did not particularly like to go to school—so his mother encouraged him to read Shakespeare, Keats, and Tennyson. 

It was said his father died alone in a Chicago hotel room, and throughout his life, Welles suspected that it might have been suicide by drink. But like many things in Welles’ life, this story may be an exaggeration. Many of the tales that Welles spun about his life turned out either to be untrue or just too vague to confirm. We are always left to wonder whether Welles, the consummate magician, is playing a trick on us. Just as we are about to get close to Welles and perhaps even to understand a small part of him, he plays a magic trick and poof! He disappears from view.

It is easy to psychologize and psychoanalyze an artist in order to try to gain a better understanding of his life, and in doing that we could conclude that Welles’ childhood was the major factor in his artistic choices. But what purpose would such a conclusion even serve? It is hard to know and easy to suppose. It is in Welles’ films that he most readily reveals and conceals himself. We must look to his creations. 

In many cases, he picked subjects that deal with action and that play with the notion of reality and illusion. Both reality and illusion can be disorienting but Welles’ aim was never to disorient the audience. Perhaps he wanted them to wake up from the slumber of illusions, but even that assertion may be forcing Welles into a symbolic box of cinematic analysis. The truth is that he constantly evades analysis as every true artist should do.

Sometimes the illusions he created were dark and demanding, leaving one ill at ease,—as in the case of Welles’ adaptation of Franz Kafka’s novel, “The Trial.” Other times, the illusions were humorous and meant to provoke, as in the case of “F for Fake.” This “documentary essay,” as Welles’ friend Peter Bogdanovich called it, is full of “trickery,” as Welles warns us at the beginning. The audience is not sure whether to accept anything as true. In the film, we follow the story of two hoaxers: Elmyr de Hory, a famous art forger, and Clifford Irving, a writer who famously wrote a hoax biography about the reclusive director, inventor, and aviator, Howard Hughes. Both de Hory and Irving ended up serving some time in prison for their forgeries and lies.

The film’s art rests in editing, and it shows the power of narrative that is created before our eyes. Should we trust the images that are superimposed and built up like modules one after another? Should we take Welles, our narrator and guide throughout the film, seriously or dismiss him as yet another artistic scoundrel? Welles wants us to ask these questions but he is not going to spoon-feed us any answers. 

The questions that arise in this film are not merely about proving the guilt or innocence of de Hory or Irving, or even Welles. They are about the nature of art in our lives. Welles wants us to ponder what things ought to be considered art. Is it something that is beautiful? Surely. But who decides what is beautiful? The so-called experts? An establishment that decides what is good or bad? 

It is hardly surprising that “F for Fake” did not go over well in the United States, though this might be primarily because there was hardly any distribution for it. When Bogdanovich tried to distribute “F for Fake,” the distributor he screened the film for fell asleep during the presentation. As Joseph McBride points out, “By 1970, the American public barely knew Welles as a director. With a myopic perspective built by the largely hostile American media, they knew him mostly as a buffoonish has-been, a cameo player in bad movies and a guest on Dean Martin’s television variety show.”

Hollywood was changing fast and all the glamour was turned into the worship of the bearded and drugged hippie. The question of whether movies are “magical” was one to laugh and sneer at. But despite the aesthetic changes of Hollywood culture, it remained an immovable and corrupt establishment. 

At the time of this film, Welles had already been an American exiled in Europe. He left America, rather reluctantly, simply because it became harder and harder to make a film here. His vision was rejected. The more America rejected him, the more Europe loved him. The French director, François Truffaut admired Welles immensely and thought “Citizen Kane” was the film of films, and “the only ‘first’ film directed by a famous man.” Truffaut’s admiration was correct and well-founded. As a great artist himself, Truffaut understood how difficult it is not only to make a film but to accomplish it fully in accordance with one’s artistic vision and intent.

Welles’ love of movies transcended his love of America, and so he made films in Croatia, Spain, and France. He was certainly not an angry American trying to bring down the structure and the essence of this country. On the contrary, Welles yearned and wished for success in America. We do have to ask whether the American rejection of Welles was truly rooted in the dismissal and hatred from the American people (the audience) or did the establishment simply push him out until he was deemed irrelevant? Did the entrenched powers of studios and production companies dictate American tastes so completely? 

These questions are important not only in terms of Welles’ life and career but also in relation to what constitutes art and the American character. How do people respond to art? Does a film cease to be a work of art once it is admired by many and not only a few? The creation of art is most certainly not democratic but its enjoyment should be available to all, and Welles would agree with this. On several occasions, he remarked that he truly wished he had a mass audience but that always seemed to elude him. He was not an elitist in the sense that he enjoyed the exclusion of others for arbitrary or superficial reasons. He did demand perfection, however, above all from himself. 

The Man in the Mirror

In one of the interviews given later in his life, Welles admitted that he did not like mirrors. Of course, Welles meant this comment to be symbolic of his view of himself. He always evaded the past and didn’t want to delve into any details of his own life. The public continued to be curious, but every time Welles appeared on television talk shows, he maintained the persona of a magician or a celebrity who was very much relaxed in talking about anything—except his past. 

According to Joseph McBride, even when the host of a show, particularly Merv Griffin “tried prodding him in those directions, he [Welles] preferred to spend his time on ‘Merv’ indulging his fondness for performing elaborately tedious magic tricks.” Is this all an audience in America was really interested in? Perhaps, but Welles certainly was not willing to give or share anything more. He used such appearances to his advantage: first, he didn’t have to talk about his life, and second, he made money which he then always put into his film projects. 

Welles may not have liked to look in the mirror; but he used them frequently in his films. The most famous example comes from “Citizen Kane,” in the scene when an old Charles Foster Kane roams the vast rooms of his massive Xanadu estate, and catches a glimpse of himself in the mirror. Kane is not pleased with what he sees: a man, who has everything and nothing; a failure, yet still a young boy yearning to become whole again. In this case, the mirror has power over Kane—instead of looking deeply into the distorted and lost face, he recoils in disgust, in shame, or in anger that emotions lying so deeply under the skin are visible at all under the veneer, or mask, that has been carefully sculpted over the years.

Another famous example of the mirror comes in Welles’ 1948 film, “The Lady from Shanghai,” in which Welles stars along with Rita Hayworth. At the time of the shooting, Welles and Hayworth were already practically divorced and the tension is visible on the screen as well. Welles plays Michael O’Hara, a man who is hired to work aboard the yacht of a disabled man, Mr. Arthur Bannister, and gets caught in a web of deceit and corruption thanks to Bannister’s beautiful and seductive wife, Rosalie.

Typical of Welles, this film too is very different from others in the noir genre, and it leaves the viewer disoriented. And just like most of Welles’ films that were made through film studios, “The Lady from Shanghai” also suffered at the hands of the producers who cut about an hour of footage and were not pleased with Welles’ lack of close-ups in the film or his strange long takes. But despite some omissions, the film is still very much a Wellesian project, and the end alone proves that point.

The mirror scene in “The Lady from Shanghai” is one of the most brilliant scenes in the history of cinema. It takes place in the Magic Mirror Maze, a seaside funhouse, where there are mirrors upon mirrors, replicating, one distorted image after another. The truth of who framed whom comes out at the end of the film but unlike Charles Foster Kane, Michael O’Hara has power over the mirror and is willing to look at his own face. It is important to point out, however, that unlike Kane, O’Hara has no reason to feel shame—only justified anger over Rosalie’s betrayal. 

In both cases, Welles plays with the illusory quality of our lives. What is real and authentic? Are we willing to look into the mirror of our souls or is it easier to look away? Is self-revelation even possible? Do we not all simply wear masks in order to forget and break away from the burdens of existence? Consider Jaques’ famous lines in Shakespeare’s comedy, “As You Like It”: 

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women
merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays
many parts

Surely Welles would attest to this. Shakespeare’s monologue leaves us with questions about reality and whether our lives are merely somewhat meaningful and bearable transitions, or whether the stage, the world, the exits, and entrances are all up to us to create? As we attempt to answer the question of reality and illusion, we cannot evade our very selves that we see in the mirror, and the biggest question of them all: are we free? 

Accepting an American Film Institute Life Achievement Award in 1975, Welles touched on his vision as an independent filmmaker and freedom: “A maverick may go his own way but he doesn’t think it’s the only way or ever claim that it’s the best one—except maybe for himself. And don’t imagine that this raggle-taggle gypsy-o is claiming to be free. It’s just that some of the necessities to which I am a slave are different from yours.”

Welles knew that choosing to be entirely in control of his projects and holding closely and deeply to his particular vision would not be easy. Being an independent artist of any kind means that you have to pave your way, engage in what will most likely be a constant forge, and understand that whatever you create (even if brilliant!) may not be recognized or applauded in the way that you yearn to see it done. I think that Welles understood and accepted this—otherwise, he would not have kept making films. It is significant, however, that he does not claim to be free. 

On many occasions throughout a number of separate interviews, Welles had said that his biggest regret was that he fell in love with making movies and that he should have started a different profession after he completed “Citizen Kane.” This regret and this constant need to forge new ways not only to make films but also to show us how fragile, tragic, and yet beautiful life can be, may have been the thing that rendered Welles an imprisoned man unwilling to look in the mirror. Or perhaps it was only that he was unwilling to let us see that he indeed had no fear of taking off the mask and seeing his own face. 

There is a great sense of mystery in Orson Welles. He was composed of many parts, and many “exits and entrances.” Through his work, Welles reveled in the game of concealment and illumination but, in the end reveals it to be more than just a silly game. It was his invitation to explore the deep, forgotten, and neglected pieces of our strange, funny, and broken selves, and to ask what it means to be human. Welles explored this time and time again with great courage and resolve, and he gave us not only a cinematic gift but also a true example of individual courage.

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About Emina Melonic

Emina Melonic is an adjunct fellow of the Center for American Greatness. Originally from Bosnia, a survivor of the Bosnian war and its aftermath of refugee camps, she immigrated to the United States in 1996 and became an American citizen in 2003. She has a Ph.D. in comparative literature. Her writings have appeared in National Review, The Imaginative Conservative, New English Review, The New Criterion, Law and Liberty, The University Bookman, Claremont Review of Books, The American Mind, and Splice Today. She lives near Buffalo, N.Y.

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