Orson Welles and the Art of the Self

May 2015 marked what would have been the 100th birthday of Orson Welles.   Actor, Director, Producer, Magician, Welles has been largely regarded as one of the great artists of the 20th Century and one of its most curious and enigmatic.   Active in film, radio, theatre and television, he produced works of notoriety and critical acclaim amid continual struggles with the Hollywood studio system and, through Citizen Kane, the powerful news media controlled by William Randolph Hearst.

Welles first achieved fame at 23 as the voice and creative force behind his Mercury Theatre’s radio production of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds in 1938. The broadcast simulated an alien invasion of the United States and reportedly caused widespread panic among its listeners.   This was followed by Citizen Kane in 1941, a roman a clef depicting the life and downfall of newspaper magnate Charles Foster Kane. While the film received nine Academy Award nominations including Best Actor and Best Director for Welles, its only Oscar was for Best Screenplay shared by Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz. ( see Raising Kane by Pauline Kael). The Hearst newspapers boycotted the film and, while producing continual excellence in film for many years, Welles’ relationship with Hollywood would never fully recover.

Welles went on to produce many seminal films and theatre productions over the next 25 years. The Magnificent Ambersons, The Lady from Shanghai, Mr Arkadin, Touch of Evil, Chimes at Midnight, F for Fake, an all African American production of Macbeth – all superb in their innovation and commitment to the creative process. Strangely, ss any of you who are my age will remember, Welles, in the latter part of his life, was a frequent guest on talk shows and was ironically famous for the Paul Masson advertisement tagline “ We will sell no wine before its time.”

As a point of interest however, along with the obvious excellence of his produced work, is the long and rocky list of unfinished projects that are littered along American cinematic history.   There are many reasons for this abandonment – lack of creative control, budget problems, shaky financing from the Shah of Iran – conspiring to create an image of Welles as a highly talented but incomplete artist. When looking Welles’ career, one cannot help but to think not so much of his accomplishments but , rather, of what might have been.   For many years I have thought of Welles as a dynamo of potential – instead of a fulfilled and sustained artist.

Part of the problem comes because of Welles’ seeming detachment from the material and emphasis on innovation as a standalone goal.   Each of his film, radio and theatre productions can be seen in an almost experimental light.   Camera work, lighting, set design, narrative structure – all designed to dazzle, to entertain, to challenge. One can only imagine what he would have done with the technology of today. Welles by avocation was a magician and there is a certain amount of conjuring inherent in all of his work.   It is stylized, it is flamboyant – but is it art?

Welles’ productive output was a reflection of his talent and creative power.   It is not about those rare and beautiful moments when art is created.   He was daring and courageous but in the end his work was simply self reflecting, the curse of the auteur. And watching him perform magic tricks on the Merv Griffin Show only substantiated the feeling that this was an incredibly talented person whose time had passed and was left with only illusions and extraordinarily clever monuments to himself.

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