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The Rise and Fall of Orson Welles

The quest for autonomy

Don Quixote.

A man chasing windmills, thinking they’re giants.

For him, the world is still peopled by mythic beings against which mortal man may valiantly strive.

While meant to lampoon old-fashioned notions of chivalry, Don Quixote has become more of a sympathetic, tragic figure throughout the years.

This picture might look something like a once-scene-stealing auteur who struggles after his breakout in film to retain autonomy.

Orson Welles claimed at times he didn’t like talking about his films.

He claimed a lot of things about himself, and we’ll let him claim them since he does it so eloquently.

But, since he never would say much about his films — and he notably, though hardly believably, dismissed the idea his last film The Other Side of the Wind was autobiographical — it’s doubtful if he’d admit he saw something of himself in Don Quixote as he sought unsuccessfully to retell the story later in his career.

Welles’ later career is a story of struggle to be financed.

So many films of his ended unfinished due to his feuds with studios.

In some measure, he brought it on himself through being a bit disagreeable publicly.

All the same, he always had his eye on autonomy.

That’s such a hard thing throughout most of Hollywood, isn’t it?

Where the model for the artist has shifted from the patrons of the Renaissance, recruiting artists to make their palaces and churches and portraits, the studios still hold the most power in making films, despite the withering of the studio system.

Welles would face challenges from the studio, such as when they edited his film The Magnificent Ambersons.

Though many consider it to be the greatest film of all time and critics did love it, his first foray into film Citizen Kane did not recoup its losses at the box office.

It was immediately controversial.

Interpretations vary about whether William Randolph Hearst wanted the film squelched because of how it drew on details about him or his mistress Marion Davies, but all the same, the powerful newspaper magnate was not a fan.

William Randolph Hearst

Had his notorious masterpiece not been under fire - and had it been immediately profitable - would Orson have had the great deal of difficulty with the studios that followed?
Welles was a wonderful bundle of juxtapositions.

He held to antique ideals of chivalry and machismo while also being a good progressive.

He was a true amateur, but he approached theatre and film with an innovative fervor that felt and understood the medium.

He was an eloquent, cosmopolitan socialite who fundamentally considered himself a Midwesterner.

Orson would lead a brigade of actors in the Mercury Theatre he established to Hollywood.

He’d also get them into radio dramas, producing his famous reimagining of War of the Worlds.

It’s a hoax that perhaps tells us something about Orson — and how he liked to push the envelope.

As for developing film?

Teaming Orson and the cinematography great Gregg Toland was substantially important in the process.

He claimed Toland taught him filmmaking in a day and a half.

In his book Mastery, Robert Green describes the apprenticeship as an important role in the development in the titular state.

Green believes that shadowing a master can lead to this maturation, which still ends with the apprentice asserting their own identity.

And Citizen Kane was driven by Welles’ vision.

He channels noir, expressionism, and a flurry of stylistic waters.

But what does it look like when you push the envelope too far?

Probably looks a lot like Orson’s later work.

The Other Side of the Wind was, as you’ll find in the Netflix documentary They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, Orson’s quest to make something up as he went along. 

Adam Grant’s Originals lays out a vision of the “tempered radical” as having a more pliable route to success.

Was Welles’ auteurism too ambitious?

There’s probably an intuition in each of us that tells us how far we ought to take it.

That’s just a hunch though.

We may only ever know that we’ve flown too close to the sun once the wax starts dripping.

All-in-all, Orson was an original, and his life has so much to tell us about success and failure and experimenting with art and media.

He told Dick Cavett that he was able to make Citizen Kane because he “didn’t know any better,” and that there’s “no authority” like ignorance.


Was Citizen Kane the greatest movie ever made?

“No, certainly not,” Welles said. “My next one is, though.”

Listening to this man spin a yarn is a joy.