100 Years of Orson Welles

AFI president George Stevens Jr., uttered the following words when he introduced Orson Welles on the February 1975 evening that the great director received the AFI’s 3rd Life Achievement Award.

“A Great man never reminds us of others,” Stevens said. “Mr. Orson Welles….”

That night Welles gave a speech where he spoke of the idea that we all have contrary aspects within ourselves that often lie at the center of our lives and our work. The polar opposites that create our personalities are what make us what we are.

Welles was a complicated man and he firmly believed that all of us lived life bouncing between and trying to reconcile our contrarieties. Each of us could do great things, but also fail miserably. That was life.

As people gather this May to celebrate what would have been Welles’s centennial, the focus (and rightfully so) will be on one end of this spectrum: the positive. Discussion will center on his superlative artwork and stunning achievements: Voodoo MacBeth; War of the Worlds; Citizen Kane; the partially realized greatness of Magnificent Amberson’s; the opening shot in Touch of Evil and his unheralded triumph in Chimes at Midnight.

What will get less attention, however, is an equally important aspect of Welles and one that arguable helped him achieve greatness—which is the flawed nature that often plagued him.

Orson Welles

Feb. 22, 1982 file photo shows actor and movie director Orson Welles during a press conference in Paris. Image is in the public domain via AP.

 

I went into writing Orson Welles’s Last Movie with the sense that he was a flawed genius, but I originally interpreted it to be a bad thing. I was mystified as to why he didn’t just buckle down and make movies for the studios. I couldn’t comprehend why he didn’t do what so many other directors had done before him—make a few films for hire (and profit) in order to get the opportunity to create something meaningful or to commit a masterpiece. His inability to play the game and desire to go against the grain initially seemed like such a source of misery that I had trouble understanding it.

That flaw, and others, made him unable to partner with people who were good for him (particularly in business dealings). His ability to manage money was abysmal, to the point that during one interviewed I referred to Orson’s “accounting practices” only to receive the response, “I didn’t know Orson had accounting practices.” Which is a pretty accurate statement.

In addition to living paycheck to paycheck (despite making 10-15,000 a day for commercial and acting work) his life was remarkably chaotic. Welles rarely slept (3–4 hours a night); remained married but spent 20 years with the same mistress; and he tended to let the day take him wherever his creativity led. Thus, while knee deep in a project, he might wake up and decide to drive a few hours away to have his cinematographer shoot him reciting Shylock’s monologue by the side of the road—because that’s what he needed to do that day.

On set and in the editing room, Welles was a perfectionist. This was a great strength, but also a weakness as he wound up behind schedule and often over budget because he would tinker with scenes over and over until he had it exactly as he wanted. Then, a few months later, he might go back to those perfect scenes and try to make them better, improving on things that no one would notice, but that would drive him insane if he didn’t make that last change or two or three.

Welles paid the price for all of his terms, and he coped with stress in many ways—drinking a dozen Fresca’s, downing a vat of coffee and smoking a box of custom-made Cuban cigars nearly every day, not to mention his struggles with eating and his weight.

As I worked through the book one of my starkest early realizations was that I literally could not last a week living Orson’s life. I would have suffered a heart attack, stroke or nervous breakdown—just from the stress.

Because of that I was always faced with the question: how was this man—the most intelligent that I will ever have the privilege to write about—unable to stop doing these things? Then I came to a simple realization that most of us learn early on: nobody’s perfect. Welles, was not only “not perfect” but his imperfections played a big part in making him remarkable. His flaws were as important to his development as his brilliance.

I have come to believe that he accepted that part of himself. He knew he was bad at business and couldn’t work with studios. As a result, rather than fight against them, he let them be, so that he could use energy that might have been expended on solving them to create on the screen and give us more remarkable images like the fun house mirror scene in Lady From Shanghai or the deep focus world of Citizen Kane that he’d created before he understood his flaws as well as he would later in life.

At the AFI ceremony, Welles described his career by pointing out that he paid for his own movies with money he made acting in other people’s films. “In other words, I’m crazy.” He said, to raucous laughter. He then followed by saying, “But, it’s a fact that many of the movies you’ve seen tonight could have never been made otherwise. Or, if otherwise—well, they might have been better, but certainly they wouldn’t have been mine…”

So, on his 100th birthday, let’s remember Welles not only for his genius, but also for the flaws that allowed that genius to flourish. Because those flaws are an essential factor in what makes a good man into a great one.


JOSH KARP is a journalist and writer who teaches at Northwestern University. His first book, A Futile and Stupid Gesture: How Doug Kenney and National Lampoon Changed Comedy Forever, won best biography of 2006 at both the Independent Publisher Book Awards and the Midwest Book Awards. Karp is also the author of Straight Down the Middle: Shivas Irons, Bagger Vance and How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Golf Swing. His writing has appeared in Salon, The Atlantic, and Newsweek among others. His latest book is Orson Welles’s Last Movie: The Making of the Other Side of the Wind.

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