Sunday, July 6, 2014

ORSON WELLES: THE DEPRESSIVE YEARS

The setting is a Paris hotel room in 1960. What better place to find Orson Welles during this dark period of his expatriation? His comeback film,"Touch Of Evil",  had already vanished from the radar after being dumped into wide release without a press screening and having proven to be another "disappointment" for the former prodigy. The future looked gloomy. And Welles--though he does his best to remain magnetic and charming in this interview--is clearly depressed. Indeed he is very very far from  the man who later became a folk hero to the young, underground cinema freaks of the seventies. This isn't the Merv-guesting, Kermit-goofing, Dino-roasting, Jaglom-palling, Bogdanovich-raconteuring, Ma Maison-dining sage of the seventies and early eighties. That Orson was a good deal lighter in spirit and--although always wearing his 'legend' like a burdensome cape into which he might retreat at any given moment--he was somewhat more resigned in a gently philisophical way. Here, though, we see the middle-period Orson--the Welles of the frightful explosion upon re-meeting his old friend John Houseman (a few years earlier, yes, but you can picture the famous eruption coming out of this Welles--"For twenty years you've been doing everything you can to destroy me!" etc. See Thomson's "Rosebud" or Houseman's "Run-Through" or even Leaming's fawning and silly OW bio to read the complete encounter). Indeed everything about this Orson is somehow in the middle. He is exactly middle aged--forty five years old--and appears to be middle-weight (double his youthful size but shy about one hundred pounds of his magnificent blubber peak, circa late seventies). Most importantly, he is in the middle of his journey and as such has not yet settled upon the best way to play out the legend. Striking the right balance between grandiosity and sadness--without descending into self-pity--would come about ten years later. Frankly, the Welles I see in this interview is depressed, ponderous, suspicious and not a little paranoid. Would you finance this man's film?

He shamefully lets the interviewers misstatement that he wrote "Citizen Kane" by himself stand--his silence is gloomy and forbidding and an absolute slap in Herman J. Mankiewicz's dead face--and he turns on the interviewer when he discusses Chaplin and picks up on Welles own suggestion that perhaps the clown was not really his own best director. Welles, who made the point to begin with, Nixon-ishly shifts into paranoia mode and suggests that he's trying to get him to admit that he isn't his own best director..."and I'm not going to do that, I get so few chances to direct as it is". In this moment you see how dangerously Welles could turn on an innocent and credit his own dark scenarios to others--is it any wonder that the multiple explinations for who was to blame for the re-cutting of "Magnificent Ambersons" have never settled the basic question of why Welles didn't simply come back home to save his second masterpiece?

In "Rosebud", Thomson argues that the dark, middle-period Welles was the least attractive and least successful phase of his ever-evolving persona--that it made him seem 'florid' and 'out of date'--and that redemption and spiritual freedom came when Welles was brutally and publicly attacked by Pauline Kael, in her essay "Raising Kane". Thomson's thesis is that Welles--though he never gave up acting hurt by Kael's attack--was secretly relieved not to have to carry the burden of "greatness" and "profundity" that he'd worn since his youth...and that the lighter and easier-going Welles--the man I first saw on Merv and last saw in Jaglom's "Someone To Love"--is perhaps the man he'd always secretly yearned to be...a charmer and a bewitcher who preferred magic over reality and who had a bigger heart than even he knew (it must have been pretty big to have carried him along for seventy years). There is much in the below interview, though, that is wonderful--he begins to rehearse the "directing is the most over-rated profession ever invented" stuff that he pulled on Bogdanovich a few years later (see PB's indispensible "This Is Orson Welles") and he's quite delightful in his insistence that he would always choose to hire a friend over the right person for the role...which ties into his theory that he really isn't all that interested in art and isn't a true professional. "I'm an adventurer" he intones gravely and not altogether sincerely. I wonder if "Touch Of Evil" and its non-success is on his mind at this moment--he was, after all, given a mighty good chance by a Hollywood studio just two years earlier and somehow--despite the magnificent result--it hadn't worked out.

Or maybe this is Welles before he came to his own conclusion that he was, in fact, always a true independent...that it wasn't the fact that Hollywood didn't "give him the same contract" again as it did on "Kane" (as he bemoans here) so much that he was never cut out to be beholden to a larger group or to be subject to a final opinion that wasn't his own. Welles at his most successful is Welles at his free and easiest and in this way he resembles nothing so much as a classic 19th century actor-manager...picking the plays, assigning the parts, staging the show, running the whole thing and getting his troupe out of town before the sheriff catches up. That's the Welles of the 30's--the Mercury years--and that's the Welles of the later sixties and seventies, the years of the self-financed projects. (And the RKO years, of course--but let's face it, that "contract" was an anomaly and one can't hope for mistakes like that--no matter how brilliant--to be repeated). It's also the Welles of "F For Fake"--my third favorite Welles film which I implore anyone who hasn't seen to quickly find a copy of and watch. Shot in 1974, "F For Fake" is Welles at his most charming and slyly philisophical. The Welles from this period, unlike the Welles seen below, has grace and magic to spare. It is this later, gentler Orson--the goo-ier, in touch with his inner-child Orson--who made "The Other Side Of The Wind" which, from the fragments I've seen, looms (just out of reach) as, if not his masterpiece, his one truly and profoundly personal work.

Click here for the full fifty-three minute interview. Below is an excerpt.



 Subscribe in a reader

No comments: