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CITIZEN KANE, Orson Welles, 1941, astride stacks of newspaper

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 geniusa 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.

Orson Welles

Orson Welles

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.

CitizenkaneOn the first day of May 1941, Citizen Kane premiers. It is a work of genius, of a twenty-five-year-old geniusone 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.

f-for-fake-DI-2His 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.

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10 replies to this post
  1. Thank you. 23! Any thoughts on the Linklater film Me and Orson Welles? That film wasn’t great, but it seemed a twin to The Devil Wears Prada: both featured sort of a troubled recognition that it’s often the forgers/bluffers/bulliers-of-others, (like Welles) that make it big. I didn’t know Welles’s story well enough to know if it was being fair to him.

  2. Any appreciation of Welles should probably also address his adaptation (or perhaps re-imagining) of Shakespeare’s Richard II; Henry IV, Part I; Henry IV, Part II; and Henry V in Chimes at Midnight. I have seen it only once, about 35 years ago, but it made a powerful impression.

  3. Mr. Turley’s comment on Orson Welles as magician possibly highlights Welles’ essential character. As best I can tell, the man was an actor of limited talent, with an impressive radio voice, who, as a young man, dazzled show people with his amazing erudition. If THAT was faked, I salute him.
    I have sort of understood the popularity of many bad movies, but not Citizen Kane. The Rosebud ending is so bad that even Freud (who must have shared some Welles DNA) might have blushed if he saw the movie in company. if I were soliciting a series of notables, dead or alive, to size up other such, I’d select P.T. Barnum for Welles. Come to think of it, if I were doing contemporaries, I’d put Barnum under contract.
    The best succinct comment on Welles is the following quotation, in which Malcolm Muggeridge gives the man a featured role: “Midcult is not a perversion of Elitecult. It exists in its own right. When Time magazine quotes Eliot, or reproduces Picasso, or serializes Hemingway, or Lucifies Joyce, this is Elitecult’s flowering. One day the Reader’s Digest will surely condense Finnegan’s Wake and Orson Welles produce a film of it. For all I know, this has already happened.”

  4. Many in the 1940’s thought that “Citizen Kane” was a parody – with enough differences in plot details to avoid lawsuits for libel or slander – of the life of William Randolph Hearst. Hearst was close to 80 when Citizen Kane was released, and died circa 1950.

  5. Even butchered The Magnificent Ambersons has a great haunting effect. One only needs to imagine it without the final scene. The prayer seen is really moving. It’s hard to be moved by anyone in Citizen Kane.

    Without money, maybe the best movie never made was his Heartt of Darkness.

  6. I always thought his best movie was “The Third Man” and the scene in the ferris wheel in Vienna positively bone chilling. His McBeth was pretty good.

  7. Time magazine said that Welles’ Macbeth was not about a noble man gone wrong, but about a dead end kid on the make. I remember the head of a college English department who said that the movie was “the Dead End Kids in the Endless Caverns.”

  8. If you can’t say something nice about somebody…I can, I can–sort of. Welles didn’t buy into that adulation of film directors a few decades ago, as his following comment indicates: “You and your directors! For me, it’s all about the acting–movies are ultimately about the performances.” In stressing actors over directors, he rates applause, but that “ultimately”
    demotes story to, at best, runner-up. Maybe a magician’s goal is always center stage.

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