Life imitates art, or is it the other way round?
In the lives of actors there is often a strange synergy with the roles they inhabit, one that reaches into their private lives and indeed beyond. For one actor, born 100 years ago, his life was to be indelibly marked by that of his creation, to the extent that, like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein whose creature pursued his creator to the ends of the earth, this creator was to be haunted by his creation until the end of his days. The creation was Citizen Kane, the creator Orson Welles.
For Welles life was pre and post that landmark movie, with everything he did leading to it or subsequently flowing from it. The character of Charles Foster Kane is an eccentric genius of sorts who in the end knew only despair as the dust collected around the castle he had built, Xanadu, an edifice that became a tomb. By the end, Welles was an eccentric filmmaker, a genius of sorts, but one who was prisoner to this genius—a genius that drove him on with invisible whips to nothing more than professional dissatisfaction as the world looked on and shook its head. Finally, he was to become a prisoner too, but it was to be in a celluloid edifice of his own creation. For both creation and creator, it is, it was, to be a sad end, a cruel one even.
May would prove to be an important month for Welles. For a start, he was born in that month, as Europe tore itself to pieces upon the fields of France and Flanders. His childhood was short for next we see him, at age seventeen, in Ireland, bluffing his way into the Abbey Theatre as an actor was born. This sleight of hand would never quite leave Welles. He was after all an amateur magician. He loved that world of make-believe entertainment. But just don’t look too closely at the cloaked figure on stage—it’s all illusion, just as it was for audiences that saw a raw youth who seemed to be acting less on stage than he was off it. But act he did, and, eventually, to New York he headed.
Another year, 1938, another May, and who do we find on the cover of Time, aged all of twenty-three years: Welles has conquered New York. His theatre is applauded; his radio shows, complete with his very own Mercury Theatre Company, are broadcast to the nation. His star continues to rise.
As we shall see, if May was the month of beginnings for Welles, October was to be month of endings. And across an October night sky comes an ending when, in that same year, space ships threaten New Jersey and radio sets are adjusted through the land as War of the Worlds unleashes a psychological terror upon the gullible.
Now, they say, it is only a matter of time before Hollywood beckons, and beckons it does.
On the first day of May 1941, Citizen Kane premiers. It is a work of genius, of a twenty-five-year-old genius—one working so far ahead of his time that his movie flops at the box office. Subsequently, its reputation is to rise and rise before reaching a point of critical acclaim that leaves one man short of breath—its creator. Newsweek’s film critic wrote: ‘This is not only the best picture that has ever been made, it is the best picture that will be ever made.’ When, many years later, he was asked what you do after that? Welles was to reply: ‘Nothing: I should’ve retired’—comments more perceptive than one might at first imagine.
Citizen Kane tells of the rise of a newspaper magnate. He has it all: young and talented, brilliant even, but as the movie rolls we see that the shadows lengthen whilst his name is ever more illumined, before, in the end, a slow and steady decline sets in. It ends with a descent into megalomania and madness.
Until Welles’ death, in October 1985, when he was found sat with a typewriter on his lap, the intervening years of his life felt like an echo of the Kane tragedy. It was to be indeed a slow and steady decline for the director. Of course, he railed against it. It was the studios that were to blame for the butchered films that would have been as good if not better than Kane: The Magnificent Ambersons, The Lady from Shanghai, Touch of Evil… Someone was to blame and it wasn’t going to be Orson. And he certainly took no responsibility for his making films such as Mr. Arkadin. His legacy is as frustrating as it is mesmerising. It is as if the words What if? threaded every reel of film that whirled around a life by then as out of control as his alter-ego, who had tried to control his world; both Kane and Welles had it all, but somehow seemed to lose everything.
In the middle of it all, he becomes a showman. Made for the television talk show, he is a raconteur second to none. He is in demand, he is recognised, he is popular, for once he is making money; the only thing is he isn’t making movies. Instead, he has become a character, but one whose mask is getting harder to remove when the performance ends—fact and fiction, not for the first time, are becoming enmeshed in the life of Orson Welles.
His 1974 F for Fake is a swansong of sorts. It’s all about forgers and the art of forgery. The only thing is, the film is just as much a fake as its subject matter. It’s really about its director. To say the film is a case of ‘smoke and mirrors’ would be an understatement, as Welles enjoyed his return to his favourite part: that of magician. Ostensibly concerned with forgery, but really about illusions and our willingness to believe, particularly in the hands of this master magician, the final spell was cast. And all intercut with a poignant meditation on the transitory nature of all things, as our guide ponders the ancient beauty of Chartres Cathedral. Only Welles could get away with it. Unknowingly, though, he was summing up his own career: the sublime and the ridiculous, the huckster and the poet, what could have been and what may well have been, a career with few highs and many lows.
Nevertheless, wherever there is a place and a time with screens still showing movies, the name of Orson Welles shall live on. And don’t be surprised if in some distant place, many hundreds of years from now, whilst an as-yet-unimagined camera pans the debris of Western Civilisation, it comes to rest not upon a sled but upon a film canister before closing in to reveal:
RKO Pictures: Citizen Kane (1941). Director: Mr. Orson Welles.
Editor’s Note: ‘Rosebud’ is the mysterious motif that runs through Citizen Kane, the dying word of Charles Foster Kane. At the end of the movie when the mystery has not been solved, it is revealed by a camera that roves across items stored amongst the dead man’s possessions to be the sled he played with as a child; it is about to be burned in a furnace. Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.