Orson Welles: Back From the Dead

Film opens Nov. 25: It must have seemed that black had turned white and upside had turned down when Orson Welles, a man used to being praised as the youngest this and most brilliant that, began to hear himself mocked as "an international joke" and "the youngest living has-been." When Walter Kerr made that savage assessment in 1951, Welles was only 36. But he had already begun the task of his middle and later years: struggling to produce more work, let alone work equal to Citizen Kane and the other youthful triumphs that made him a legend at 25. (Article continued below…)

Welles's death in 1985 didn't rescue his reputation. "For the television generation," wrote frequent lunch companion Gore Vidal in 1989, "he is remembered as an enormously fat and garrulous man with a booming voice, seen most often on talk shows and in commercials where he somberly assured us that a certain wine would not be sold 'before its time,' whatever that meant." In 1993 the critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, one of Welles's most perceptive chroniclers and staunchest defenders, lamented that he is "mainly regarded in the U.S. today as a failed artist." Even now, YouTube serves as a repository of Welles's bad late-life behavior, like the gruesome clips that keep "Orson Welles drunk" and "Orson Welles frozen peas" among his most popular Google searches. (Look them up for yourself if you're cruel.)

But in the past decade or so, there has been a slow contrary shift in how we remember Welles. The turn of the century brought a spate of 100-greatest-film lists, which frequently ranked Citizen Kanefirst. In 1998 a restored version of his noir classic Touch of Evilproved that he could deliver a popular hit after all. Chris Welles Feder's newly published memoir of her father is only the latest of the 50-plus books about him since his death: biographies, critical studies, and more.

It's not just the critics and the snobs who are revising the way we think of him. Since his death, depictions of Welles have turned up in novels, plays, television cartoons, and, remarkably often, on the big screen. Now, thanks to Richard Linklater's charming new film, Me and Orson Welles, he is about to enjoy his greatest posthumous visibility yet. The movie, adapted from Robert Kaplow's novel, tells the story of a kid who stumbles into Welles's revelatory modern-dress Julius Caesar, which up-ended Broadway in 1937. This side of Welles has been depicted too often lately to be a fluke. Critics, artists, and audiences in the 21st century are reaching for an image of Orson that's not much like the one that prevailed when he died. But what is it? And why?

It's no mystery why so many biographers have wanted to write about Welles since his death: who can resist a life story that starts out as a tall tale and ends as a cautionary one? From the time he left the cradle (more or less), Welles flashed a bold imagination, an impatience with convention, and a consuming love of gee-whiz effects that let him knock over art forms like bowling pins: theater (a voodoo Macbeth, the modern Julius Caesar), radio (a seven-part Les Misérables, the panic-inducing War of the Worlds), and film (Citizen Kane). But while he was completing The Magnificent Ambersons, the follow-up to Kane, Hollywood shut him out. This heartbreakingly lovely film about a bygone America was recut and butchered while its director was off doing his patriotic duty, shooting a documentary in Brazil. "They wrecked Ambersons," Welles said later, "and the picture wrecked me." He would make more quality films (F for Fake, Chimes at Midnight) and enjoy some jolly gigs (playing Harry Lime in The Third Man), but after 1942 he spent too much time pleading with investors, gaining weight, and hawking wine—all the while turning into the degraded celebrity of Vidal's description.

To some of his biographers, Welles's descent makes him the poster boy for a broken culture that grinds up even its geniuses. The less forgiving call him the author of his own demise, an irresponsible prima donna who largely got what he deserved. Much as I adore his work, I've tended toward the latter view. It's hard to rush to the defense of an artist who spent plenty of time on his Brazil trip partying with the natives and who insisted, even in the reduced circumstances of his later years, on staying in world-class hotels.

Yet reading his eldest daughter's new memoir, In My Father’s Shadow, makes it more difficult to take such a harsh view. Feder doesn't sugarcoat him as she traces their relationship from the days when he was still a Hollywood darling (and Mr. Rita Hayworth) to the very end (shuttling around Europe, disappearing for years at a time). Again and again, she asked for the most basic love and attention, and Welles often failed to provide them. "Orson is a genius, Chrissie," said her mother after he once again neglected to show, "and you can't expect a genius to behave like an ordinary father."

The book isn't always felicitously written, but it's poignant. Feder comes to understand that Orson is a "child-man," one who is in some ways younger than she is, yet faced with impossibly grown-up choices. "I have to keep my name alive and my bills paid," he said of his many demeaning TV appearances. Feder's story suggests that sitting in stern judgment of Welles isn't quite right, nor is whistling past his failings as an artist and a man. If we understand his plight, we ought to afford him some pity, the way she did in time.

Even as Welles's chroniclers offer this richer portrait of the older (if not more mature) figure, the public seems to be seizing on a different persona. Me and Orson Welles doesn't serve up the compromised, struggling artist of Welles's late (or even middle) years. We see instead the dynamic young tyro, the world-beating talent who hired an ambulance so he could get from the theater to the radio studio in time to broadcast his gigs. (True story.) As young Richard (Zac Efron) comes to adore and ultimately run afoul of the director who whimsically hired him, the film shows why Orson became a legend. Welles (played, not half badly, by Christian McKay) is forever blasting onto the screen, shaking things up, making things happen. He brooks no dissent. "Every single one of you stands here as an adjunct to my vision," he booms to the company. "I own the store." It's not always pretty: Welles comes off as an imperious, duplicitous, philandering brat. But he's also funny, seductive, and ingenious. Toward the end, Linklater devotes seven luxurious minutes to a re-creation of Welles's Caesar. Many of its novelties—contemporary dress, stark lighting, spare set—have become de rigueur, but it's transfixing all the same.

Though the old, fat Welles has popped back into view a few times—as in Austin Pendleton's play Orson's Shadow, about his return to the stage in the 1960s—a reader or moviegoer getting his first look at Orson lately has been far more likely to meet a vibrant dynamo like Linklater's. There's been Cradle Will Rock (in which a cartoonishly madcap young Welles stages a politically charged opera), RKO 281 (the bold young Orson takes on the brutish William Randolph Hearst), Man in the Chair (Welles, in flashback on the set of Kane, confers a nickname and spirit of independence on a young gaffer), and even The Simpsons, which offered a Halloween homage to The War of the Worlds. (When Welles's broadcast about a fake alien invasion is followed by an actual alien invasion, young Orson pleads with the residents of Springfield to alert the authorities, but Chief Wiggum tells the military only that they've been invaded by "a pompous radio ham," with apocalyptic results.)

These depictions of young, larger-than-life Orson have been so frequent that we can compare interpretations. Who comes closest to the broad frame and baby face? Probably McKay, though he lacks what a friend of Welles's called "a certain lunatic radiance." (Plus, like every other actor who's played Welles since his death, he's too old for the part.) Who's nearest to mimicking the rumbling bass voice that was ever so slightly sibilant, that could pivot in a syllable from wry to grave? Maurice LaMarche, who played him in The Simpsons and (while overdubbing Vincent D'Onofrio) Ed Wood, but even he can't match the essential Welles tone: a voice monumentally delighted with the sound of itself.

As the people who heard that voice firsthand leave us, and the depictions of his bright youth proliferate, Welles's fortunes seem to be reversing: he's less and less a punchline and more and more an icon. A select few stars become these fixed points of reference in our culture. They're the ones who don't just entertain us, they reflect back to us some vital aspect of ourselves. Just as the Great Bambino personifies the swing-from-the-heels excess of the roaring '20s, and Ol' Blue Eyes embodies the swagger of midcentury cool, Welles seems to be standing in for a kind of American artist un-limited. There's a risk of being too sociological about this, but you can see how the Boy Wonder serves a need at a difficult time: America is in bad shape, and the culture that Welles lit up is changing all around us. Why wouldn't we be drawn to the kid from Wisconsin who brashly pushed back the limits of the possible?

This could all change, of course. A biopic starring Jack Black in a gray wig would suffice to turn the tide. And iconhood has a downside: it leads to a certain thinning in how you're remembered. Artists who become icons risk having their work overshadowed by their image, becoming mere personalities. Still, it beats being an outcast, something Orson predicted he wouldn't remain for long. "They may turn their backs on me now, but you wait and see, darling girl," he told Chris in one of their last conversations. "They're gonna love me when I'm dead!"

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