ORSON WELLES: AMERICAN MAVERICK.
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.
Read the whole thing, but with a few caveats. There’s no doubt that if Welles had been making films in more recent decades, he would have had a far more successful career, thanks to movies being sold to TV, DVD, Amazon Prime Video, Netflix, etc. But Welles began filmmaking in a system where the movie had to profitable at the box office, or the director wouldn’t be getting many more shots at bat. Also, the above description of Welles’ many lives jumps from Citizen Kane, to Welles’ last years as a massively dissipated corporate spokesman, it skips past Welles’ period in the 1950s and ‘60s when he completed (most) of his films, and as a result, worked steadily, mostly in Europe.
But by the early 1970s, with the (in retrospect all-too-brief) Easy Riders/Raging Bulls era of “new Hollywood” in full bloom, Welles thought he could return to L.A., and the new studio heads would jump to hire him. It didn’t work out that way, both because the new young Turks running Hollywood were just as leery about hiring Welles as the dinosaurs they replaced, and because Welles, then in his very dissolute mid-50s, was no longer the 24-year old Kane-era whiz kid who declared a film studio was “the best electric train set a boy could own.”
As Kyle Smith accurately wrote of Welles’ “last” movie, The Other Side of the Wind, shot in the early 1970s, but only completed in 2018, and is now available on Netflix, “You’d be better off watching instead the movie about the movie: They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead (the title refers to one of Welles’s mordant self-observations) explores the relentless, almost purposeful squandering of talent that is the Welles tragedy.”