Larger than Life: Some Brief Thoughts on Orson Welles

I attribute my survival to one man: Orson Welles. In fact, I am convinced that without Orson Welles I very well might have ended up in jail, homeless, or worse, working in middle management for cooperate America.

Directly after graduating from high school I attend a community college. I was perhaps a C student at best, and I found nothing to keep my interest throughout my entire twelve years of schooling. Therefore, with very few prospects, my parents forced me to attend the local community college. There is really nothing wrong with attending a community college, and the one I attended was very good. No, it was the idea of staying in my hometown that I most objected to. I feel, and have felt since earliest childhood, that Binghamton, New York is without a doubt the worst place one could have the unfortunate luck to be brought up. I was resentful, and tied all of my bad luck to being born and raised in the most unfortunate of places. I still feel that my being born there is a mistake of cosmic proportions.

All of this is really contextual. As a child I recall seeing Orson Welles, by then grossly fat, selling Paul Masson wine or as a frequent guest on Johnny Carson, Mike Douglas, or Diana Shore. I was always captivated by the way he told stories, and of course, I was entranced by the sound of his magnificent voice, booming through the airwaves into my living room. However, I was never sure what Welles was famous for. This was in the 1970s, so long before “reality television” where one can be a celebrity for just about anything. So, it wasn’t until my third semester at the community college, during a course in film theory, that I saw Citizen Kane, and was forever changed. From that moment on I became obsessed with Orson Welles. I gradually saw all of the films directed and starring Welles that I could. I read every published biography and tried to track down as many interviews I could get my hands on. Orson Welles was an intellectual and a popular figure. Welles was twenty-six years old when he made Citizen Kane, arguably the greatest film in the history of cinema. From there, however, it is believed that his success went downhill. To be a “has been” before one is thirty can only be traumatic. Yet, despite these popular misconceptions, Welles went on to do some of his greatest work after Citizen Kane. In the end, I think it was Hollywood that killed Welles.

This past week I saw Richard Linklater’s film, Me and Orson Welles, starring Zac Efron, Clair Danes, and Christian McKay as Orson Welles. Although I enjoyed the film very much, it did portray Welles as a son of a bitch. I’m not sure how true to life this representation is, but McKay did a fantastic job portraying Welles. Everything from his mannerisms to the voice was near perfect. This is McKay’s first motion picture, and I’m sure that we will be seeing a lot more of him in the very near future. The film explores Welles’s 1938 Mercury Theater production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in contemporary dress. The production has become one of the most famous productions of any Shakespeare play in modern times. The film portrays Welles as a perfectionist, a womanizer and adulterer, a drinker, all of which he was. It is undeniable that Welles was careless in his personal and professional relationships. But then, his genius was all. In a wonderful scene from another Welles masterpiece, A Touch of Evil, Marlene Dietrich says of the character played by Welles, a corrupt police chief who has been killed:

“He was some kind of man. What does it matter what say about people.”

He was some kind of man, indeed.

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