By Tony Williams.
Despite McBride’s fortune in having a closer involvement with Welles than most critics, this book is never reverential. Instead, it presents a balanced and complex picture of an extremely talented but difficult personality whose personal flaws are less important than what he attempted to achieve.”
What Ever Happened to Orson Welles? A Portrait of an Independent Director by Joseph McBride (University of Kentucky Press, 2022) is an expanded version of a book that originally appeared in 2006 at a time when any released version of The Other Side of the Wind (which was finally released in 2018) resembled Man of La Mancha’s identifiable song “To Dream the Impossible Dream.” Fortunately, this dream with its resonances to the director’s still unfinished Don Quixote project proved possible. In future the author of this study may document the finished versions of other impossible dreams that still await realization.
This particular book is exactly what its subtitle describes. It develops the arguments of Jonathan Rosenbaum who has argued that Welles is often misunderstood as a Hollywood director rather than the independent film talent he actually was. Rosenbaum’s arguments previously appeared in anthologized collections of his essays that once had the same type of circulation that Robert Carringer’s Critical Inquiry article had, but all have since formed part of his 2007 University of California Press book Discovering Orson Welles that appeared a year after McBride’s study (1). Although it totally demolished the misleading thesis of Pauline Kael concerning Citizen Kane’s authorship, Carringer’s article had limited circulation. However, McBride had the actual benefit of sporadically working with Welles during the last fifteen years of his life as well as appearing in The Other Side of the Wind, whose production methodology reflects techniques of “guerilla filmmaking” usually associated with low-budget, avant-garde films. This is an aspect of Welles’s career not generally known to the wider public, and McBride provides a missing piece of the jigsaw essential to understanding accurately the nature of Welles’s authorship. After reading McBride’s book they will have no excuse for slavishly following the legend rather than accepting long established facts.
Unlike Citizen Kane, this missing piece supplies a key item for those who still believe the misleading ideas of Charles Higham, Pauline Kael, and David Thomson (in addition to those self-styled film scholars in academia and ill-informed “experts” on the internet) over Welles’s decline after his first Hollywood feature. In fact, the issue is much more complex. (2)
Despite McBride’s fortune in having a closer involvement with Welles than most critics, this book is never reverential. Instead, it presents a balanced and complex picture of an extremely talented but difficult personality whose personal flaws are less important than what he attempted to achieve. Although in the last years of his life as a promoter of Paul Masson wine (a performance that may have contained elements of a tongue-in-cheek magic act designed to trap the unwary into believing a fake to be the real thing as in F for Fake) talk-show guest, and trailer narrator for Revenge of the Nerds (1984), at the same time Welles was actually attempting to direct his own type of independent cinema which he often had to fund by himself when the new Hollywood generation of directors often contradicted their lavish praise of his work by not supplying the necessary money and support to allow this creative giant to complete his projects. True, on certain occasions, the director could be his own worst enemy. But he was also a victim of historical and political circumstances that eventually exiled him from his own country and later isolated him from the American cultural mainstream on his return. To good effect, McBride quotes Hollywood critic and screenwriter F.X. Feeney, who mentions that Welles suffered through an “ironically Soviet-style `internal’ exile – harsher, subtler, meaner and longer than what even Abraham Polonsky suffered, because it could be disguised under the `Crazy Welles’ rubric. Look how fat he is now, ha, ha” (xvi). Instead, McBride documents “a period of great artistic fecundity and daring even if it was hidden from public view” (xviii). Welles left behind him a complex legacy of unfinished and unreleased work contained in film, videotape, and audiotape that the Munich Museum is currently preserving, restoring, and attempting to distribute, as the 2006 Criterion DVD restoration of Mr. Arkadin (1955) revealed. In his later years Welles rejected the studio system of making films and became instead an unrecognized father of “guerilla cinema” by directing “with small nonunion crews on erratic schedules whenever he could get the money for more shooting or simply whenever he felt like it” (23).
McBride astutely documents the fact that Welles was often more sinned against than anything else. The campaign of character assassination began after his firing from the RKO lot by a studio establishment who realized that he would not play the Hollywood game of commercial prostitution. Citizen Kane was nearly burnt by those wishing to appease the Hearst Empire. The Magnificent Ambersons was drastically re-edited and its cut footage destroyed, while Welles was fired from his Brazilian documentary It’s All True. “Such a nightmarish denouement could stand as an allegory for the shameful way artists too often are treated in America” (29). McBride documents the facts that Welles suffered from his “bold attack on entrenched economic and cultural power with Citizen Kane” (37), was under FBI surveillance for a considerable period of time due to his radical associations with Popular Front movements during the 1940s and could have been interned in any national emergency which the American government could have declared between 1945 to 1949. Known for his outspoken hostility to racism and home-grown American Fascism, Welles’s decision to relocate to Europe had much to do with the changing political climate in America following the death of Roosevelt. The Dies Committee had already investigated him in the early 1940s and he probably felt he would face another interrogation by its post-war successor HUAC.
McBride poignantly documents the mutilation of The Magnificent Ambersons while Welles was in Brazil making a good will documentary on behalf of the American government. But he also emphasizes the fact that Welles soon envisaged the project as being much more than a travelogue as the forthcoming study by Catherine Benamou will show. Furthermore, despite allegations promoted by R.K.O., Charles Higham, David Thomson and others, McBride documents the fact that It’s All True was actually under budget when RKO pulled the plug on the project. (3) The real reason had nothing to do with Welles’s supposed financial extravagance and bad behavior in Rio:
It’s no accident that the stories spread by RKO to demonstrate Welles’s supposed financial extravagance and irresponsibility contained elements of racism. The racist arguments made against the film in both Brazil and the United States, in 1942 and beyond, are a symptom of a deeper underlying discontent with Welles’s conception of It’s All True as a radical critique of Brazilian socioeconomic injustice, contrasted with a celebration of the democratic vitality of that country’s black culture.” (70)
By now, the die was cast. Rejected by Hollywood, Welles moved to Europe in 1947 and began a career as an independent director financing films from various acting jobs, both good and bad. His career was certainly affected by a blacklist that also involved many of the colleagues who had worked on Citizen Kane. As well as experimental features in fiction and documentary, which differed radically from mainstream Hollywood conceptions of technical perfection and homogenous narratives, Welles returned to Hollywood one last time to direct Touch of Evil (1958), a film misunderstood at the time of its release and altered by the studio. After, he directed several films in Europe, the most notable being his other masterpiece Chimes at Midnight (1965). Welles then returned home for the last fifteen years of his life, hoping that the new Hollywood era of Easy Rider would prove more sympathetic to his talents. However, it proved more hostile than its classical predecessor by refusing to finance the projects of a director that many of the younger generation claimed as their inspiration. Welles continued to work in his own maverick fashion by beginning his collaboration with cinematographer Gary Graver, developing his creative partnership with Oja Koda, and starting a new film The Other Side of the Wind completed by others only a few years ago.
McBride sympathetically describes the nature of another unfinished project Don Quixote, as well as European ventures such as Around the World with Orson Welles (1955), as revealing the director’s enjoyment of the “newfound freedom of European independent filmmaking, approaching it in a quixotic spirit of picaresque adventure” (123). He also made one remarkable independent short film for American television, the 1956 Desilu The Fountain of Youth adapted from a short story by John Collier. It represents one of the most innovative explorations of the television medium both in terms of its creative structure and also its intriguing imaginative devices. Sadly, this pilot never led to a continuing series. His other television pilot, Portrait of Gina (1958), also represents another lost opportunity for a planned ABC series both in its anticipation of many formal features that would later characterize F for Fake as well as its dark asides concerning the phenomenon of twentieth-century celebrity status.
Although Welles could have safely left the movie business long before he died, McBride sees him as a heroic figure who decided to remain working up till the very end and became a success on his terms, not by the industry which abandoned him,”
Like his 2001 biography, Searching for John Ford, the author has had the benefit some thirty-plus years of involvement with his subject. The chapter on the making of The Other Side of the Wind documents McBride’s personal involvement in a project that reveals both the dark side of the former New Hollywood film industry as well as the dangers of compromise for any veteran director who attempts to prostitute his talent in a different, but still dangerous, way from that of the past. Footage from the film was screened at the American Film Institute Award Ceremony in 1978. It revealed a deliberate clash between two diverse shooting styles: cinema verite and satire on contemporary surrealistic countercultural art cinema. McBride not only records his own personal frustrations working on the film but also his later attempts to interest others in completing it after Welles’s death.
McBride shows that Welles was working constantly up to the moment of his death and that he tried to do his best, even in commercials. This also applies to his television guest appearances. During my first visit to America in 1979, I saw Welles as a guest on The Dinah Shore Show where he appeared genial and at ease with other guests. He never exhibited any of the disdain of contemporary stars such as Russell Crowe and Meg Ryan did on the BBC’s Michael Parkinson Show. McBride not only provides fascinating glimpses of other unfinished film projects such as The Deep, Orson’s Bag, The Merchant of Venice, and Moby Dick but also those fascinating documentary essays such as F for Fake, Filming Othello (1978), and the unedited Filming The Trial (1981) where Welles combines various strands of form, meaning, entertainment, and education that fascinated him throughout his life. The poignant footage from the never completed The Dreamers, based on an Isaak Dinesen story (whose Immortal Story Welles had shot for French television in 1968) reveals poetically tantalizing glimpses of a talent still at the peak of its creativity. McBride also critically examines other projects such as The Cradle Will Rock and The Big Brass Ring screenplays. The latter was filmed by George Hickenlooper in 1997 in an altered version failing to do justice to aspects of the original screenplay, while Tim Robbins’s 1999 film version of the former tended to over-emphasize the boorish side of Welles rather than depicting his more creative youthful dimensions. Despite McBride’s reservations concerning the nature of the original Welles screenplays, both contain elements of imagination that could easily be adapted to the screen in other more faithful future versions. This new edition also contains an epilogue containing reviews of the re-emergence of Too Much Johnson and The Other Side of the Wind as released.
Although Welles could have safely left the movie business long before he died, McBride sees him as a heroic figure who decided to remain working up till the very end and became a success on his terms, not by the industry which abandoned him: “A man who created so many enduring and influential works in a commercial medium and kept working right up to the end was no failure but a roaring success” (304-305). But directors need good audiences who support major talents. The current situation is disappointing, but should the majority of audiences reject the demeaning glut constantly served to them by monopolistic theater chains resembling those dehumanizing aspects of the machine age documented in The Magnificent Ambersons, then they will find a vast inheritance to enjoy. Welles’s cinema still awaits better understanding and dissemination. This book is one of the many that tells the real story for those who want to move beyond the official versions disseminated by those adhering to the same type of lies that exiled Welles from Hollywood during the 1940s.
1.See Rosenbaum, “Othello Goes Hollywood,’ Orson Welles’s Essay films and Documentary Fictions,” Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1995, pp. 124-132; 171-184; Jonathan Rosenbaum and Bill Krohn, “Orson Welles in the U.S.: An Exchange”, Persistence of Vision 11 (1995), pp. 86-109; Rosenbaum “Orson Welles as Ideological Challenge,” Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Conspire to Limit What Films We Can See. Chicago: Capella, 2000, pp.75-195.
2. Simon Callow recently discovered this aspect in the second volume of his biographical quadrilogy on the director, one which takes a more balanced perspective than the vicious character assassination marring The Road to Xanadu. See Callow, Orson Welles: Hello Americans. New York: Viking, 2006. Despite the improvement over the first volume the work contains several factual errors and typos.
3. This became the subject of a lively debate on the “Octopus” section of Wellesnet.com. a very valuable resource for Welles scholars.
Tony Williams is an independent film critic and a Contributing Editor to Film International.