A boy wonder to the very end, and of how many boys can that be said?
Yesterday, as it must to all men, death came to George Orson Welles.
Forty-five years ago, Orson Welles made what is now considered at least the greatest American film of all time, by some the greatest movie of all time, period, and he made it when he was 25 years old. "Citizen Kane" was about a legendary figure of history, and before his life was over, the legend of Welles would eclipse the legend of Kane and most other 20th-century legends you could think of.
He was the 20th-century really. I fear that when he died, he took what was left of it with him. It's over now. But it did have its magnificence.
The figure of Welles grew as ecliptic as the legend did. In later years the man who remade cinema with "Kane" and who panicked the listening nation with his Halloween radio docu-drama "The War of the Worlds" on CBS in 1938, became best known to those of the TV generation for his talk show appearances (David Frost once introduced the 300-pound Welles as "a giant of a man in every way") and a series of commercials in which he played the bon vivant at table-side, saying of the Paul Masson firm that hired him, "We will sell no wine before its time."
Comparisons between Welles and Kane are inevitable. Kane was a man "who got everything he wanted and then lost it," one character says of him in the film. A current derogatory biography of Welles is subtitled "The Rise and Fall of an American Genius." In his twenties, Welles burst across the sky like the proverbial comet, in theater, radio and then movies, as actor, director, writer and producer, but though many of his later films have earned high places in cine'astes' pantheons (particularly his Shakespearean pastiche "Chimes at Midnight" and his film noir classic "Touch of Evil"), Welles was haunted by the long shadow of "Kane" for the rest of his career.
Some of us would give everything imaginable to have been haunted by such a shadow.
The real curse of "Kane," though, was that it was not a commercial success. It lost money for the studio, RKO, that over great objection from publisher William Randolph Hearst released it. And although immediate critical reaction was wildly laudatory, Robert L. Carringer notes in "The Making of 'Citizen Kane' " that the film all but disappeared toward the end of the '40s, and when Sight and Sound magazine polled critics for their lists of all-time favorite films in 1952, "Kane" did not make the final top 10. The film returned to circulation through release to television, however, and by 1962, when the poll was taken again, it came in first.
Since then, it has probably become the most written-about American film, prompting landmark essays from Andrew Sarris in 1956 and from Pauline Kael in 1971. Kael tried to shift major credit for the film's screenplay from Welles to his collaborator, Herman Mankiewicz, but that approach has now been largely discredited, in part by a new Welles biography just published: "Orson Welles," by Barbara Leaming. Welles was driven to tears upon reading the debunking Kael essay, Leaming writes.
Whatever the finer points of ascribing credits, Welles was the film's author. And what makes "Kane" work is attributable to the breadth of Welles' passions and capacities. People are called multitalented today if they can dance and chew gum at the same time. Welles really was multitalented; he was omnitalented. "Kane," 45 years later, even viewed at home on a VCR, still has the irreverent urgency of fresh journalism, the conceptual grandeur of epic theater and the technical wizardry of pure cinema. It's one of the most approachable masterpieces ever.
If anyone ever dares to make "Citizen Welles," it ought to be a hoot. Actually, Welles almost made an autobiographical film last year: "The Cradle Will Rock," named after a history-making theatrical production of Welles' Mercury Theatre in 1937. Forbidden by the sponsoring Federal Theater Project from raising the curtain on the left-wing play -- authorities actually padlocked the doors to the auditorium where it was to open -- Welles and his entourage led a crowd that gathered to another theater, where the actors and composer Marc Blitzstein put on a makeshift performance without benefit of sets or props.
A script about this momentous occurrence in theater was written, and Rupert Everett was tentatively enlisted to play the young Orson Welles, but then at the last minute, backers of the film project, including Washington's reigning film impresarios, the Pedas brothers, pulled out. It was the old Welles jinx that scared them -- the director's tendency to leave projects unfinished. There were also concerns about his age and health. If the project had gone through, Welles might have finished at least shooting the film before he died. Even without that film as a document, he hardly comes up short in the legacy department.
There always was a joyfulness in his audacity, a sense that he was not just thumbing his tiny nose at powers that be and were, but that he was finding profound human absurdities in the course of his flamboyant excursions. There is good evidence he found himself as absurd as he found everything else. Artists like to speak with solemnity of their "God-given talents"; perhaps Welles perceived it as something of a macabre practical joke that God gave him so many.
In time the Welles apocrypha will mingle with the facts and all will become part of one mad myth. In no time, actually, for the process began long ago. The apocryphal stories may say as much about the nature of his genius as the true tales. Leaming recounts one that begs to be believed -- that Orson, at the age of 18 months, is supposed to have stood up in his crib and remarked to a Dr. Bernstein who was visiting the Welles home, "The desire to take medicine is one of the greatest features which distinguishes men from animals."
It's no exaggeration that Welles, at the age of 7, could recite from memory all of King Lear's speeches. It may be an exaggeration, but in context it sounds delightfully plausible, that Welles was once appearing in a Shakespearean play at one theater and performing a magic act in a theater next door at the same time, and that one night, making his customary entrance from the audience, he bolted up the aisle only to discover he was barging into "Macbeth" dressed in a magician's hat.
Or the other way around, depending upon who's telling the tale.
Peck's bad, but very bright, boy became America's enfant terrible. Welles managed to maintain his maverick status to the end. It's to blame for the reason he never made a Hollywood movie after 1957, but we want to believe that his scoundrelly reputation gave him some degree of self-satisfaction, too. Before he reached the age of 30, Welles had already electrified the theater world, dazzled the radio audience and revolutionized movies. What could he do to follow that? He married Rita Hayworth.
Television was never a medium Welles appears to have taken very seriously. It was a bit small for him, in every sense of the word. His appearances included a mid-'50s guest shot as himself on "I Love Lucy," performing a magic trick that Lucy thought would be a scene from "Romeo and Juliet." In later years, he slummed through stints on celebrity "roasts," made some commercials, appeared as Sheridan Whiteside in an unworthy TV version of "The Man Who Came to Dinner," and for a while was an occasional guest on Johnny Carson's and Merv Griffin's talk shows. He taped his final "Merv" this week. But the magic tricks he insisted on bringing with him to the programs grew increasingly and dumbfoundingly Byzantine, and Carson dropped him, except to the point of making jokes at the expense of his girth.
All of Welles' TV appearances, no matter how seemingly ignoble, were made for one reason: to earn him easy money with which, he imagined, he could return to making films. He once claimed that footage for his unfinished film "The Other Side of the Wind" was being shuttled back and forth from country to country as some international monetary pawn.
In Hollywood, the town without pity, Welles could be seen frequently at Ma Maison, a plain-plush restaurant on Melrose. It's the kind of restaurant where the posher your car, the more prominently it is parked in the small lot near the entrance (others are shuttled to the back yard). Welles' arrivals down a long walkway leading to the front door were inescapably ceremonial. He moved, it was once observed, like a great ocean liner through the St. Lawrence Seaway.
Inside, he never merely sat down for lunch; he was ensconced. Occasionally he would suffer the presence of journalists. One later told the story that upon arriving at Ma Maison for an appointment with Welles and finding him already ensconced, he sat down for lunch and a chat. Later, when the check came and was delivered to the journalist, there were three lunches on it instead of two. It evolved that Welles had arrived an hour early, eaten a first lunch, and then stayed for another.
He was a man of enormous appetites. Leaming describes in perhaps excessive detail his sexual adventures in Rio, to which he retreated after the release and seeming failure of "Kane," to shoot the never-finished film "It's All True." Having tripped the light fandango once or twice too often, Welles found himself being shot at from afar while lying in his bedroom one day. He fled the attacker clad only in a kimono. Encountering a friend on the street, he was induced to attend the opening of an art exhibit and did so without daring to return home for a change of clothes.
And so on.
To behold Orson Welles in the flesh was patently unforgettable. Once, in Hollywood, I attended a special screening of scenes from "Wind" at the Director's Guild theater on Sunset. There was to be a panel discussion involving Welles idolator Peter Bogdanovich (who appeared in the film) and others. A row of seats had been set up at the front of the theater, along the width of the screen. This was all standard-sized furniture except for one piece: In the middle was a mammoth, overstuffed living-room chair. There was no question about who would be sitting here.
Several years later I was asked to appear on the CBS News broadcast "Nightwatch" to discuss a controversial docu-drama, "Special Bulletin," and was told Welles would also be appearing from Los Angeles. Who was I, I wondered, that I should be placed on an equal pedestal with Orson Welles? But the chance to meet him even electronically was too rich to pass up. As it happens, the first thing I heard him say, from a small speaker planted on the floor, was my name.
I had shared air time with a living deity. I had heard that voice, that mighty Wurlitzer of a voice, speaking to me, speaking to me as years earlier, and on the same network, it had spoken to a nation so convincingly that it thought the Martians had landed.
He hobnobbed with royalty, he married goddesses, he drank at Toots Shor's with Jackie Gleason (and there dubbed Gleason "The Great One"), he never stopped prodding The Establishment, he saw comrades become nemeses, and he made everyone on earth his audience. Charles Foster Kane was asked by a banker in the film what it was he had wanted to be. Kane said to the banker, "Everything you hate." That, perhaps, was Welles talking to Hollywood. The screen was never big enough, the stage was never big enough, maybe not even our own imaginations were big enough.
Even his disparaging biographer, Charles Higham, writes in his current book on Welles, "The truth is that Welles gallantly tried to do the impossible: he tried to create films as novelists create novels, as poets create poems, as composers create music, as painters create paintings." It will be said now that he had a glorious youth but a misspent adulthood, but for all the perennial talk of unfulfilled promise, it does appear that Orson Welles had a pretty good time, fulfilled or not.
Acting looked so easy for him (he loved accents and putty noses), and as a mesmerizer, he was a natural. Among the many acting jobs he took, one of the most memorable was the role of the corrupted Harry Lime in Carol Reed's "The Third Man." It's hard to forget that first glimpse of Welles' baby cheeks illuminated by a flash of light from an upstairs window on a Viennese street.
For all the Shakespeare he spoke on the stage or screen, the dialogue one most associates with Welles was Harry Lime's parting speech to "Holly," played by Joseph Cotten, after their Ferris-wheel ride in "The Third Man": "Don't be so gloomy," he said. "After all, it's not that awful. What the fella said; in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed -- but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love and 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock. So long, Holly." With that he vanished into the gloom of day.
From the turbulence of this century, from its grandest dreams and darkest nightmares, Orson Welles fashioned great art for the masses in a style and on a scale probably no one will ever undertake again. People will search for his "Rosebud." And if they ever find it, it will probably be something that was right there under our noses the whole time. A simple thing, like a sled half-buried in snow, or a girl in white once glimpsed for a second on the Staten Island Ferry, or a Declaration of Principles. For as long as we watch movies, we will be watching his movies, and for as long as we tell each other tales, we'll be telling tales about Orson Welles.
I say, the taller, the better.