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A tribute to Orson Welles

Fri 9th Apr 2021

Orson Welles' impact goes so far beyond Citizen Kane.
Orson Welles' impact goes so far beyond Citizen Kane.

A planet is dwarfed by a giant metal orb, which collides with and begins to devour the planet. This is our introduction to Unicron, the antagonist of the animated 1986 Transformers: The Movie, and the curtain call for the great Orson Welles. The movie was panned by critics, adored by children, kicked off a new lucrative toy line for Hasbro, and marked the end of a storied career, one marred with controversy and genius.

Orson Welles described the final role of his legendary career as follows:

"You know what I did this morning? I played the voice of a toy. Some terrible robot toys from Japan that changed from one thing to another. The Japanese have funded a full-length animated cartoon about the doings of these toys, which is all bad outer-space stuff. I play a planet. I menace somebody called Something-or-other. Then I'm destroyed. My plan to destroy Whoever-it-is is thwarted and I tear myself apart on the screen."

He passed away two months after finishing his final project, on 5 October 1985, aged 70. He was very frail and needed assistance entering the recording booth to deliver his dialogue, so much so that his lines needed to be enhanced via synthesizer in post-production.

This was a far fall from grace for a once highly touted young talent set to take Hollywood by storm. His opus remains Citizen Kane, widely regarded as one of the greatest films of all time, often topping critics' lists, and rightfully so. Many of the lighting techniques, camera angles, tracking shots, and story tropes are still used by film makers today. The non-linear narrative structure was groundbreaking at the time; it wasn't the first, but it was the most successful and set the blueprint for the likes of Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Sergio Leone, Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan to deliver a multitude of pop culture classics in the decades that followed.  

Orson Welles (fourth from left) with classmates at the Todd School for Boys
Orson Welles (fourth from left) with classmates at the Todd School for Boys

Citizen Kane was not Welles' first brush with notoriety. In fact, he was somewhat of a child prodigy. He displayed the same traits in school plays that would become hallmarks of his professional career. He was the director, set designer, costume designer, and lead actor for several school plays. He played Jesus, Judas, and the Virgin Mary, as the school he attended, The Todd School For Boys, encouraged creativity over traditional academic methods of teaching. He graduated aged sixteen, made his professional debut at Ireland's Gate Theatre, and three short years later, aged nineteen, he debuted on Broadway, playing Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet.

However, Welle's first truly impactful foray into public consciousness came courtesy of what went on to become a pop culture phenomenon. Mercury Theatre, which would later morph into Mercury productions for his film endeavours, performed H.G. Wells' 'The War of the World' live on radio, in the form of fake news bulletins depicting aliens invading New Jersey. Fake news at its finest. The mass hysteria which reportedly gripped a nation was widely exaggerated by the media. The many listeners who were upset by the hoax were outnumbered by those who deemed it a well-played prank. Not bad for a broadcast hastily put together on the morning the show was due to air; it's doubtful even Welles, creative extraordinaire, could've foreseen the ripple effects it would cause. Tales of his demise were indeed greatly exaggerated, as two years later, he was on the verge of Hollywood immortality.

Citizen Kane was the peak of Orson Welles' career, at the ripe age of 26. He was a Hollywood darling post Oscars, despite the film's failure at the box office and not winning Best Picture. He was given unprecedented freedom by RKO studios and delivered a masterpiece, so they went back to the well one more time for his next outings, whose productions, much like his masterpiece, turned out to be non-linear. The Magnificent Ambersons began production in late 1941, however, it was heavily edited after Orson Welles left mid production to film 'It's All True' in Brazil, an experimental film that created a butterfly effect for the rest of his Hollywood tenure, which after falling out of favour with RKO studios, was short lived. Welles never returned to The Magnificent Ambersons, and production on It's All True was shut down. The political leanings of the latter film didn't sit well with the studio or with the Brazilian government. Versions of both films, after much legal deliberation with the Welles estate, were restored and screened at prestigious festivals, decades after his passing. He remained exiled from Hollywood until 1956, filming the bulk of his catalogue in Europe, most notably in 1949, The Third Man, a British film which along with Citizen Kane is often included in 'best of' lists, and was voted by the British Film Institute as the greatest British film of the 20th century.

Well before Citizen Kane, Orson Welles appeared in the
Well before Citizen Kane, Orson Welles appeared in the "America's Most Interesting People" section of The American Magazine for his prowess on the stage.

Orson Welles cut his teeth as a stage actor, Shakespeare brought out the best in him; it was not surprising that the majority of his European endeavours, on film or stage, were Shakespeare adaptations. Welles' personal favourite of his movie catalogue wasn't Citizen Kane or The Third Man, it was his 1965 film 'Chimes at Midnight', based on Shakespeare's 'Falstaff'; a project Welles had been developing before commencing work on Citizen Kane. Orson Welles never completed another feature length project again after Chimes at Midnight.

Many of his unfinished projects have come to light in recent years, the most recent being 'The Other Side of The Wind', which sadly, is truly a case of art imitating life. The story revolves around a brash director whose genius is evident on the big screen, ultimately undone by his rash behaviour behind the lens. The story culminates with the director's death, on his 70th birthday, the same age at which Welles passed away several years later.

The majority of Orson Welles' career is full of unfinished works. He was quoted as saying "Middle age is the enemy of art", which is a shame, as that's the stage of his life where he spent the majority of his career. The works he completed are astonishing, which begs the question; what if he was given free reign for the duration of his career? Maybe it's for the best he wasn't given the privilege, or a very real War of the Worlds may have unfolded across Hollywood backlots.

Welles married three times; most famously to Rita Hayworth, with whom he starred in the 1947 film 'The Lady from Shanghai'; the pair's tumultuous four year marriage (1943 - 1947) is well chronicled and brought to light one of the darkest parts of Orson Welle's nature. Prior to attaining Hollywood success, he was married to Virginia Nicolson for six years (1934 - 1940). He was married to Paola Mori for thirty years (1955 - 1985).  

Orson Welles at his wedding to Rita Hayworth, with best man Joseph Cotten on September 7, 1943.
Orson Welles at his wedding to Rita Hayworth, with best man Joseph Cotten on September 7, 1943.

He is survived by two daughters; Christopher Welles Feder and Beatrice Welles. Rebecca Welles, the middle daughter, passed away in 2004. Christopher authored 'In My Father's Shadow: A Daughter Remembers Orson Welles', an honest look at a larger-than-life figure through the lens of a child longing for a father figure. Beatrice is an actor and manages the Estate of Orson Welles, she has been directly involved restoring many of her father's unfinished projects. Despite his many shortcomings as a parent, as depicted in Christopher's memoir, his daughters have always honoured their father's memory.

Welles himself always expressed great reverence for his parents, Beatrice and Richard Welles.  Richard was an aspiring inventor who made a living manufacturing bicycle lamps; Beatrice was a pianist and an activist. Beatrice died when Welles was only nine years old; Richard's death stemmed from alcoholism, six years later, when Welles was fifteen. It's astonishing that Welles would graduate just one year later and set out to conquer the world. His gift as an uncompromising artist can be traced back to his parents' own artistic and radical tendencies; in fact, he held his parents in higher regard than what he felt his own genius could muster. One could say the reverence Welles expressed for his parents is very much in line with the public's perception of the work he left behind.

''My mother and father were both much more remarkable than any story of mine can make them. They seem to me just mythically wonderful.'' - Orson Welles

Rest in peace, Orson Welles

By Mario Rodriguez

Sources:

  • https://www.wellesnet.com/
  • https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/12/07/the-shadow
  • https://www.flickeringmyth.com/2019/08/till-all-are-one-a-production-history-of-the-transformers-the-movie-1986/3/
  • https://www.flickeringmyth.com/2020/07/groundbreakers-citizen-kane/
  • https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/infamous-war-worlds-radio-broadcast-was-magnificent-fluke-180955180/
  • https://www.imdb.com/
  • https://www.brainyquote.com/authors/orson-welles-quotes