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Orson Welles: The life and career of a legendary filmmaker

When we talk about the most influential filmmakers of the 20th century, Orson Welles is a name that ranks very high on that list. As the creator of cinematic masterpieces like Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil among others, the legacy of Welles has been immortalised in the history of cinema. Often called “the ultimate auteur”, he showed that it was possible to accomplish great things outside the suffocating studio system of Hollywood. On the 106th anniversary of his birth, we revisit the life and career of Orson Welles as a celebration of his unparalleled contributions to the world of cinema.

Born in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in 1915 to an affluent family, Welles was exposed to an education that was culturally rich. His mother was a pianist who gave her son excellent musical training and his father, a rich inventor, introduced the young boy to multiple celebrities. However, Welles had a difficult childhood because his parents separated when he was around four years old. Welles’ mother passed away, dying of hepatitis just a few days after his ninth birthday and he was forced to live with his father who had become an alcoholic. Later, his father passed away when Welles was 15, succumbing to a combination of heart and kidney failure. Throughout his life, Welles felt guilty that he had driven his father to his demise, a factor that heavily contributed to his vision.

According to his father’s will, Welles had complete autonomy over choosing his guardian and, in doing so, he selected Maurice Bernstein after his mentor Roger Hill refused to take the responsibility. He had discovered his penchant for the performing arts in school where he conducted many dramatic experiments. After graduation, he was awarded a scholarship from Harvard University but he refused the opportunity of receiving an institutionalised education and went travelling instead. The Russian-American painter Boris Anisfeld even tried to motivate Welles to study art when he briefly attended classes at the Art Institute of Chicago. However, his path took him elsewhere. When he reflected about that time in an interview with Dick Cavett, Welles said:

Desperate not to be educated, I went into theatre.

With the small inheritance that he had received, Welles made his way to the Gate Theatre in Dublin where he blatantly lied and said that he was a Broadway Star. Although the manager later claimed that he had seen through the young man’s lies, he was moved by his ambition and the audition that he gave. This is how Welles got his acting debut in a production of Jew Suss and, from there, he continued to score other roles and minor parts but he was forced to return to the US after an unsuccessful search for a work permit. Upon his homecoming, Welles was put under contract by Guthrie McClintic and he started acting in Shakespeare productions, scored radio gigs and even found success with a writing project called Everybody’s Shakespeare. It was around this time that he filmed his first short film as well, the eight-minute work called The Hearts of Age.

Given his style, Welles’ performances caught the eye of John Houseman who invited him to be a part of the Federal Theatre Project. Welles experienced relative freedom while working in an environment where he could control the details and the approach to his productions. He recalled, “I was so employed I forgot how to sleep.” During his time there, Welles made memorable productions like his interpretation of Macbeth with a fully African-American cast that came to be known as Voodoo Macbeth. Given their blossoming working relationship, Welles and Houseman formed their own company in 1937 called the Mercury Theatre which produced acclaimed works like the modern revision of Julius Caesar with undertones of fascism. They even had a weekly radio program called ‘The Mercury Theatre on the Air’ which once caused mass panic during a reading of a radio adaptation of H. G. Wells’ novel The War of the Worlds. Listeners thought that the planet was actually being invaded by Mars and even Adolf Hitler criticised it publicly. It must have made him even more paranoid than usual.

The fame which followed enabled Welles to get recognition from Hollywood but he declined the initial offers. However, when RKO offered him complete creative control over his project and a right to the final cut, it was too good to be turned down. Uninitiated with the conventions of filmmaking and operating outside the rigid studio system, Welles’ debut feature is still regarded as one of the best films ever made; Citizen Kane. It puzzled audiences at first, simply because they were not familiar with the use of a self-conscious camera and the complex narrative structures but the universality and power of the story ensured cinematic immortality. “I must admit that it was intended, consciously, as a sort of social document — as an attack on the acquisitive society,” Welles said. “I didn’t know that there were things you couldn’t do, so anything I could think up in my dreams, I attempted to photograph.”

It is a difficult predicament when your first work is your greatest but that is exactly the dilemma that Welles had to grapple with. His second project, The Magnificent Ambersons, was less complicated than his debut but he was tricked by the studio executives who made their own cut of the film. He was later fired by RKO which deeply unsettled him. Welles admitted: “I never recovered from that attack.” After marrying Rita Hayworth in 1943, Welles continued his film career with the 1946 noir thriller The Stranger, The Lady from Shanghai (1947) and a film adaptation of Macbeth in 1948 which Jean Cocteau praised for its “crude, irreverent power”. However, he began an almost decade-long exile from Hollywood after divorcing Hayworth. Welles spent that time in Europe, acting in a few projects like Gregory Ratoff’s Black Magic.

He used the money from his acting work to make a self-financed film adaptation of Othello which went on to win the prestigious Palme d’Or at Cannes. He reportedly told the actors: “To hell with the Method! This is the Welles way! Act, you sons of bitches!” and even disappeared for four days to attend a party in Venice. While he was on this hiatus, he gave one of his best acting performances in Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949). Although his next directorial project was the 1955 film Mr. Arkadin where he starred as a reclusive billionaire, Welles officially returned to Hollywood the next year with appearances in films and television shows. In 1958, he would prove that he still had undeniable talent by making one of his finest films – Touch of Evil but he was not satisfied with the studio’s interference – “I must say it’s not too far from what I wanted. It’s not too different, that’s the best thing.”

The latter part of his career consisted of works like The Trial (which he considered to be his favourite) and the 1968 feature The Immortal Story. It was his first project in colour and he wasn’t too happy about it – “Colour enhances the set, the scenery, the costumes, but mysteriously enough it only detracts from the actors. Today it is impossible to name one outstanding performance by an actor in a colour film.” Sadly, he started struggling with health issues soon after that and spent the final years of his career working in television and appearing in advertisements. He was awarded with the  Lifetime Achievement Award by the American Film Institute in 1975 and even won the highly sought after D.W. Griffith Award. At the age of 70, he passed away due to a heart attack but his legacy will never be diminished.

One must wonder what Welles would have been capable of if he had the resources to pursue his many unfinished projects like the film adaptations he had planned – most notable of Don Quixote and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness among others. However, what he did achieve during his lifetime was incomparable. With his fresh and revolutionary approach to cinema, he influenced newer generations of filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard who derived inspiration from the spirit of the auteur and started the French New Wave. Even after all these years, Welles continues to be an indispensable part of the history of cinema.