Thursday, 22 May 2008


« From the ultimate masterpiece of the History of the Cinema to the wine commercials », such is the common if not lazy résumé of the uncommon career of Orson Welles, the first creative renegade of the motion picture industry.

By sharing his most interesting views of the surface but also the inside of Welles’s great mysteries, Film Historian Joseph McBride gives the cliché of the self-destruction of a genius the definitive treatment it deserves and grants us with a sincere, honest and unique study of the travels and misadventures of a knight errant extraordinary in love with Cinema.

« What is surprising is that I lasted as long as I did. » (Orson Welles, quoted in What Ever Happened to Orson Welles, Page 18)


« I feel young, happy, and ready to make movies. » (Orson Welles in 1982)

The best way to try to find the answer of an enigma is to establish a postulate straight. One of the most enduring cliché in the History of Cinema is that, in 1941, Orson Welles gave the world what french director François Truffaut called « the Film of Films » and then, in the eighties, shot these infamous « No wine before its time » commercials.

Amongst the public, the general opinion doesn’t fare much better. This wonderful scene in The Last Action Hero with the sequence of the 1948 version of Hamlet, directed by Laurence Olivier (« You will now see a scene from the film by Laurence Olivier. You may have seen him in the Polaroid commercial - or as Zeus in Clash of the Titans ») could easily be transposed with Orson Welles. Was he the guy who made the voice of Robin Masters in the Magnum P.I. hit series or Unicron in Transformers: The Movie? Le Chiffre in Casino Royale (1967)? Who is this Orson Buggy parodied by the great british comedian Benny Hill in one of the most famous skits of his show?

There is something between the caricature of a so-called failed career in directing and the ashes of oblivion. What Ever Happened to Orson Welles? A Portrait of an independent career fills the gap, with the help to the author Joseph McBride and the publisher University Press of Kentucky – home of a magnificent biography of actor Peter Lorre: The Lost One – A life of Peter Lorre.


« Despite the great acclaim the twenty-five-year-old Welles received for his first feature film, the backlash caused by its fictional portrait of the powerful publisher William Randolph Hearst caused permanent damage to Welles’s Hollywood career. » (Joseph McBride, What Ever Happened to Orson Welles? Portrait of an independent career, Page 4)

« Cartoonist, Actor, Poet and Only 10 ». So is introduced the young Orson Welles under the scrutiny of public interest through an article published in 1926 by a local newspaper. Cover of Time Magazine in May, 1938, at 23, toast of the stage, sensation of the radio waves, Orson Welles is probably the first true « Wonder Boy » of the History of Entertainment industry (Time Magazine uses the words « Marvelous Boy » - What Ever Happened to Orson Welles? Portrait of an independent career, Page 30).

When he terrorizes a whole country with his adaptation of HG Wells’s War of the Worlds for the CBS radio network, everything seems then possible for a man who can convince his fellow citizens that Martians are invading the US. And George J. Schaeffer, newly appointed president of RKO Pictures opens him the doors of Hollywood with a two-picture deal (signed on July 21, 1939) and a total creative control.

« But hiring the daring and controversial Welles, who was sure to take an unorthodox approach to Hollywood filmmaking, was a major gamble for a new studio president. » (What Ever Happened to Orson Welles? Portrait of an independent career, Page 33) The relationship between Hollywood and the Auteurs is one of the many major issues that illustrates the paradox of Cinema being both an Art and an Industry, and Orson Welles is the quintessential cas d’école of the complexity of this paradox. After all, « Hollywood studios at first wanted Welles only as an actor, not a director » (Page 32). Welles triumphant, now inside the Dream factory, takes the road to Xanadu.


« From the very beginning on Citizen Kane, Orson was a marked man. » (Richard Wilson, Welles’s assistant on Kane, Page 32).

Resented as an outsider almost immediatly by the Hollywood system, supported (at least in the beginning) by Schaeffer but not by the others Powers That Be between the walls of RKO, Orson Welles, in some ways seals his fledging career as a director when he starts working on Citizen Kane (1941), his proto-biopic based on the life of Press tycoon William Randolph Hearst – a man less magnimous than Rupert Murdoch many years later with Elliot Carver, the villain of Tomorrow never dies (1997).

To offense the Gods is not a matter without consequences, especially if they’ve been bothered by some of your actions in the past. « Welles had been a bête noire of the Hearst papers long before the controversy over Citizen Kane. His progressive political views, expressed in speeches and print, and his politically radical work in the New York theater made him an increasingly prominent and inviting target in the late 1930s » (What Ever Happened to Orson Welles? Portrait of an independent career, Page 45).

Manoeuvres around the release of the movie harm Kane in spite of an artistic plebiscit (« The impressario Billy Rose told Welles, “Quit, kid. You’ll never top it. Quit while you’re ahead” », Page 42) . But nothing will hurt Orson Welles more at the time than the torments over The Magnicent Ambersons (1942), his next film for RKO: « They destroyed Ambersons and the picture itself destroyed me » (Page 62). Cinema journalist and director Peter Bogdanovich called the fate of The Magnicent Ambersons, « the greatest artistic tragedy in the movies ».

Just a trick of the woods, woods of holly...


« Hollywood is a gold-platted suburb suitable for golfers, gardeners, assorted middlemen and contented movie stars. I am none of these things. » (Page 81)

The greatest of all Orson Welles’s mysteries is an enduring belief that the man and his career were failures beyond the promises of Kane – Welles once said about the advice of Billy Rose: « You know, maybe he was right ». Absolute masterpieces like The Lady from Shanghai (1947) or The Trial (1962) would normally suffice to put the records straight but What Ever Happened to Orson Welles? Portrait of an independent career is certainly not a 344 pages rehabilitation of the Master. Film critic Joseph McBride gives an accounting of the « lost » years (at least in the american subconscious) in the creative life of Welles with a personal touch of the highest interest: « When I was twenty-three and finishing my first book on Orson Welles, I had the good fortune not only meeting the legendary and elusive filmmaker but also, even more improbably, becoming a character in an Orson Welles movie. »

August 1970, journalist and author McBride tries to catch the attention of the bohemian director – back to Hollywood after his european misadventures – when he meets Welles for the first time, thanks to Peter Bogdanovich (« I’m on the other line with Orson »). Orson Welles is about to start test scenes for his new movie project, The Other side of Wind (« Is this going to be a feature-length movie? » asks Joseph McBride, « We certainly hope so » answers Welles), the story of a disastrous Hollywood birthday party and the last day in the life of a director played by director-actor John Huston and written by Welles as a figure a la Ernest Hemingway.

But what lies beneath a situation every cinema journalist would dream of is more incredible than an encounter between a director and a critic fascinated by his works (« You’re the only critic who understands what I try to do »)... Orson Welles has a film-buff type role in his production and Bogdanovich believes McBride would be perfect for the character. The shooting of The Other side of Wind will last six years (« You’ve been in this picture for three years?» later asked Huston), then the complicated completion of the movie will be overshadowed by a long battle over its ownership.


« It’s about two percent moviemaking and ninety eight percent hustling. It’s no way to spend a life. » (Orson Welles, quoted in What Ever Happened to Orson Welles? Portrait of an independent career, Page 87)

« Partly by necessity and partly by design, Welles pursued his own maverick brand of filmmaking in this later years, largely financing his own works and scrambling to get them finished and distributed. » (Page 4). So, what ever happened to Orson Welles after The Magnificent Ambersons? What ever happened to the Bold one? Joseph McBride gives the readers an in-depth view of the many lives of the cat with the magic hat: Auteur of major chapters of the great History of Cinema, actor, writer, magician, voice artist...

« As a director, for instance, I pay myself out of my acting jobs. I use my own work to subsidize my work. In other words I’m crazy. But not crazy enough to pretend to be free » explained Welles. First of the maverick directors, pioneer of a true independent way of making movies, Renaissance man in an empire of philistines. What Ever Happened to Orson Welles? Portrait of an independent career is not only the sum of the infinute erudition of Joseph McBride about Orson Welles but the tale about one of the last adventurers in the movie industry by one of the protagonists of one of the most challenging of his adventures, told with humility and intellectual honesty (« My idol had stepped down his pedestal to slap me in the face », Page 160).

Orson Welles is not dead, he’s filming scenes of his next movie somewhere behind the the other side of the wind and Joseph McBride invites you to be the privilege guests on the shooting of his latest work of art: maybe it’s Mr Arkadin, maybe The Immortal Story... A release of The Other side of Wind is planned for 2008. The fascination for his work his the greatest of Orson Welles’s magic, and What Ever Happened to Orson Welles? Portrait of an independent career is the ticket for the master’s next show (

« I’m just in love with making movies » (Orson Welles, quoted in What Ever Happened to Orson Welles? Portrait of an independent career, Page 87)

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