An Elegy to Orson Welles

Sudarshan Ramani

Orson Welles, 1951 by Jane Bown

“All of Us Will Always Owe Him Everything”

– Jean-Luc Godard

Orson Welles was born on May 6th, 1915 in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He would be 100 years old had he been alive.But what am I saying? Of course Orson Welles is alive.

To talk of Orson Welles is not to discuss, merely, the biological and organic being known as Orson Welles but also the legendary figure that is Orson Welles. Welles was always man and legend, of double aspect, coexisting and inseparable. He had transformed himself so thoroughly from Midwestern runaway to artistic prodigy that when he returned to New York from Dublin in the 1930s he seemed to have come out of the primordial ether, fully formed.

As an actor, Welles almost never appeared in films as his real self. There were always the mountains of make-up, the fake beards, and the fat-suit he wore in Touch of Evil long before his actual obesity would make it irrelevant. Indeed in all of Welles films as a director and performer, there is only one without make-up at prime physical condition, that film is The Third Man, where you see Orson Welles, Age 35 (with five films under his belt and a sixth, The Tragedy of Othello in piecemeal production) all smooth charm, baby fat and mischief ready to use his friend and then guilt-trip him, Alida Valli (and the audience) into crying for the bad guy.

As a young man, Welles was a man of nearly infinite energy. An ace juggler, who worked fast in many different fields, who wrote impeccably beautiful dialogue at lightning pace, who almost never slept and whose brief vacation on the yacht of King Vidor after the wrap of Citizen Kane was the first real vacation he enjoyed after several years of non-stop work on Mercury Theatre and Radio.

The Welles of middle-age could cautiously shepherd a film as bold, inspired, grotesque and baroque as The Tragedy of Othello into completion in a production that lasted three years, spanning two continents with money from all over the world. The film’s inspired Turkish Bath sequence was shot in an actual Turkish bath, the staging was mapped out the day before, forced by circumstances of low budget and limited resources. In his final years, he had several projects started (Don Quixote, The Deep, The Dreamers, The Other Side of the Wind) but the only completed projects (at the time of his death) are two film-essays, one of which (the other is Filming Othello), F For Fake was virtually conjured by chance.

These are facts. But facts are one thing, context and interpretation is another. There’s the tired analogy of Kane prophesying Welles’ eventual decline to a recluse, forgotten and alone, never reclaiming the career high of Citizen Kane, an American without a “Second Act” as conceived in the formula of F. Scott Fitzgerald. This doesn’t hold water when one considers that almost every Welles film is a masterpiece and the two which aren’t (The Stranger, The Immortal Story) are exquisitely good. Welles having a phobia for completing projects, which can be seen in the films left incomplete at the time of his death, does not hold water against the fact that he could complete his Shakespeare films (Chimes at MidnightOthello) despite an impossible production schedule and lack of steady funding. The likelier reason for incomplete projects (all dating from the 70s and 80s) could be attributed to the greater difficulty of attracting finance for an older artist and his own fading health. Such a career can be placed in any preconceived morality play. In this too, one can see the legendary quality of Orson Welles.

In Miguel de Cervantes Don Quixote, an entirely ordinary man, Alonso Quijano, attempts to transform himself into a legend. Amazingly, he succeeds, and in the second part of the Book, where apocryphal adventures, pirated copies and tall tales about his activities are spread all around him much like Orson Welles in his final years, who was hounded by a phantom-Welles proliferated by critics, biographers and scholars, as well as several others. Don Quixote also runs into a series of highly cruel aristocrats who engage in cruel games to trick him and use him for their petty games, much like Welles being tricked by several prospective producers in his sojourn through Europe, and the Hollywood that honored him with an Oscar while denying him any funding to make a film. For the legend to live Alonso Quijano would have to die, as he eventually realizes and so abandons his masquerade and leaves his wares in the hands of his friend Sancho Panza and his biographer Cide Hamete Benengeli who asserts that Don Quixote is greater than any false knight dreamed up in the tales of Arthur and Charlemagne. Welles, braver than Don Quixote, never abandoned his masquerade but likewise left his wares and legend in the hands of several admirers such as Peter Bogdanovich, who along with Gary Graver, Oja Kodor, Jonathan Rosenbaum and Joseph McBride is spearheading the revival of The Other Side of the Wind in 2015-16.

Orson Welles of course was never ordinary nor was he so much of a late bloomer as Quijano, who until his forties lived the life of the very provincial boredom that Welles, in his troubled childhood, could never experience. Yet, he shared with “The Knight of the Sorrowful Face” the gift of tearing apart the fabric of received ideas, conventional morality and false assumptions, a man whose very existence challenged and overturned all our expectations and notions. To attain this at a young age – after staging the anti-fascist Julius Caesar, the Voodoo Macbeth, the Broadcast of the Martian Invasion of New Jersey – is remarkable. To maintain that challenge thirty years after his death is staggering.

The greatest testament to Welles’ lasting legacy is perhaps this project. Cinephiles all over the globe are invested in making the restoration of his film, The Other Side of the Wind possible. Contribute if you can.