Thursday, December 17, 2009

Me & Orson Welles

The contemporary meaning of auteur is "someone who executive produces and associate produces." Back when he was a snob for the left, Dennis Miller ranted accurately that something was wrong with a culture in which the words "Tori Spelling" and "zeitgeist" could be found in the same sentence. Orson Welles suffered the full force of everything we hate about Hollywood: the favoritism, the nepotism, the studio politics and test audiences. His name is tossed around today as journalistic shorthand for people like Sam Mendes, the young writer-director who emerged from Broadway fame and followed up with a successful film debut, American Beauty. But Welles can also be code for a charismatic flash in the pan talent that spends itself too quickly and either dies young or lives to bloat as a has-been.

I always found Welles's excesses to be splendidly Falstaffian. I also think Walter Kerr made a good point when he said that the preponderance of Welles's misfortune came from his own inability to take himself out of the picture: his acting, carried over time, began to undermine the genius of his direction and design. I didn't want to believe that, but after listening to Welles's Hamlet and flipping through the reel in my head, I find that I probably would take The Trial over his Othello. But why hold one masterpiece hostage against the other? Especially when the real-life character of Orson Welles makes for such splendid storytelling on its own?

Me & Orson Welles follows a 17-year old actor as he ambitiously insinuates himself into the Mercury Theatre's inaugural production, Julius Caesar. True or not, the story mirrors an earlier moment in Welles's own career: when he was 17, he lied about his age to get into an acting company in Dublin. From thence, Broadway, the Federal Theatre Project, and beyond. I'm inclined to believe the story since everyone else in this movie's Mercury cast -- from Eddie Marsan as John Houseman, to James Tupper as Joseph Cotton, to Ben Chaplin as George Coulouris, to Leo Bill as Norman Lloyd -- has been eerily well-cast. One senses that a swap to black and white film stock would seal the illusion completely.

And what of that master illusionist, the narcissistic polymath Welles? Well, see for yourself:

What always struck me about Welles, the icon, was the dynamism of his genius. He had, as John Frankenheimer once said, a "total intellect" for every component of the art form. What always struck me about Welles, the man, was the dynamism of his character, something his later film appearances (especially the ones "as himself") don't quite show, but this candid interview might:

Or this moment of on-camera vulnerability from 1965:

Emotions criss-cross his brow with a dexterity reminiscent of Brando -- that other gluttonous icon of Broadway and Hollywood golden ages. As played by the British actor Christian McKay, we get more of the haggard, declamatory Welles of 1948 than the fresh-faced 22-year old who had already jolted Broadway twice before his 1937 Caesar. First, with an all-black production of Macbeth, set in Haiti, and then again with his scandalous production of the Marxist opera The Cradle Will Rock. An anti-fascist, pro-Brutus version of the Roman tragedy almost sounds like a come-down, though it set the standard for every ambitious recontextualization of Shakespeare since. So whenever you see Hedda Gabbler on Mars or ... I don't know ... Timon of Akron ... you have Welles to thank.

Two stories about that Caesar production that didn't make it into the film: He wanted the flash of a real knife blade on stage and so he used one and almost killed the actor playing Caeser. The film also glides over one major reversal in the story. The reinstatement of the Cinna the Poet scene converted the whole enterprise from a failure to a masterpiece in one stroke. An earlier preview concluded to no applause, causing Welles to spit in a fellow actor's face -- another famous instance of diva rage. But what a scene and what a change is here o'erlook'd! Early in Me and Orson Welles, Sonja Jones warns young Richard that acting with Welles is a gift but also the privilege of getting sprayed with his spit. So why not show this meltdown to sweeten the breakthrough success that followed? The film never shies from showing the duplicitous and childish side of Welles, so I'm more baffled than disappointed.

After Caesar, Welles stunned the nation with his War of the Worlds broadcast and was rewarded for this creative trauma with the most generous film contract ever offered a novice director. He used his authority as the ultimate Hyphenate writer-producer-director-actor to create Citizen Kane. So, in five lightning-quick years, Welles made history in theatre, radio, and film. Hopefully a future biopic will try to draw a tragic arc over that period and beyond to give us the man in the full rush and dynamism of his life. The tragedy of his story is that each of those revolutionary masterpieces -- Cradle, Caesar, War, Kane -- may live to be more famous for the drama surrounding them than the merits of the particular art work.

Cradle is rarely produced, but the story of its production bears re-telling. Battered by HUAAC on one side and union politics on the other, Welles and his cast decided to defy both by marching to another theatre and performing the show from the audience. It is the meta-drama of Welles's bravery and innovation that resonates, more than Blitzstein's music. Similarly, to listen to the War of the Worlds broadcast is to wonder how any so many people could have been fooled into believing it was real, given all the warnings before during and after the broadcast that it was fiction. We cite that show as an incident more than an entertainment, an example of verisimilitude run amok (that puts reality tv to shame). It is Welles the illusionist at play in War. Just as it is Welles the illusionist at war with Hearst in Kane.

He did things with the earth, wind, fire, and water of the art. Half the techniques now credited as Wellesian innovations were byproducts of his novice curiosity and Gregg Toland's exploratory spirit. Here's one last clip about what it means to work an audience: