George Orson Welles or “The Great One” was a mythical man of tremendous talent. He was larger than life. Just being in the same room with him would be the climax of anyone’s life. He was a magnificent auteur, a great director, writer, radio host, theater man, he was a self-proclaimed charlatan, however, there is no one adjective to accurately describe this man of myths, who was way ahead of his time.
Sadly a lot of people around him never fully understood what was going on in this mad man’s mind. The title itself may seem contradictory, but is actually more complementary in nature. Orson Welles was one of the greatest artists in history, but sadly also died broke and alone in his cottage. However thanks to all his success he would not have been able to achieve such failures. As Welles once said:
“I started at the top and have been working my way down ever since” — Orson Welles in “F For Fake” 1973.
Although comedic to laugh at, there was more truth in this relating to his own life.
Welles had the expectations to live up to his greatest achievements at a very young age. As many people know when he was 23 he struck fear and panic into the listeners of his 1938 radio drama War of the Worlds broadcast which he adapted HG Wells’s novel into a newscast for a modern audience. Thus becoming a huge successful troll spreading fake news. There was a method behind this madness.
Orson wanted to show people that they couldn’t believe everything they heard on this new invention at the time, the “magic box” or the radio, which he proved to be right. Starting a panic like that would lead some people to jail, however Welles went to Hollywood with the funding and support to produce his next project, “Citizen Kane” (1941) which by film critics was considered the greatest film ever made. In addition to that, he had much success with his following film The Magnificent Ambersons” (1942)
Although all these successes rose Orson to fame at 26, he struggled more for the rest of his life which led to a lot of unfinished films. Although he did have a lot of unfinished films they were not total failures. He was able to film most of them and make it to the final stage, post-production. More than most film-makers who wouldn’t even make it to filming.
One of his most successful failures was a film “decades in the making”, released recently by Netflix in 2018. “The Other Side of the Wind” starring the late John Huston. To this date, it remains his last film until other unfinished works like Don Quixote will be restored and finished, hopefully soon! Ironically the film was about an aging director trying to make a film.
Like Sunset Boulevard, “Inglorious Basterds” and “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood” this is a film within a film, Utilizing a mockumentary approach within it. Literally creating an example of art imitating life. This film, although great, had legal troubles to get finished. French courts held the film’s negatives captive, while Welles’ partially edited workprints had been held in Croatia since his death in 1985.
Although he did die with this unfinished failure, today it would be safe to say that he would be pleased that it’s finally a finished success. If that’s not good enough reason for Welles to rise from his grave then nothing is.
Welles was a maverick to the studio system. Coming from a radio and theater background he just didn’t understand all their rules and regulations nor wanted to. He wanted to make films on his own how he saw fit. In his film “Touch of Evil,” he had many disagreements with the production company on how it should be done.
Welles was never supposed to direct Touch of Evil but just act in it. Lucky for him the lead actor suggested he direct it to the studio. The studio, knowing what kind of person Welles was, was very hesitant to hire him even though his directorial credentials were unquestionable. Welles worked on most of Touch of Evil until he was fired. The reason for this was the studio and Welles both had different visions of how the picture should look. He was unable to enter the editing room, ironically he had no control over the director’s cut. Although he failed to get everything he wanted for the film, it still turned out one of his best.
His departure from Hollywood was one of strong sentiments. He went into independent film-making, not by choice, but out of desperation Welles felt betrayed for the studios erasing his work, firing him, and taking control in his films he was working on.
Welles became one of the fathers of independent film-making. Which would later influence other filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, Spike Lee, Martin Scorsese, The Coen Brothers, and many more. Mainly because he had no choice other studios just didn’t want to work with him. Welles’s system to fund films was a bit unorthodox. To get money for his films, he would cameo or star in other people’s films, shows, and commercials. Just having his face or voice in any production was bound to make it better from a marketing tactic. He spent all that he had on his dream and died broke in a hotel in 1985 while working on another unfinished project, a show about magicians. Although there were failures of countless unfinished films lead, there was also an inspirational figure for other filmmakers to look up to, which would not end up going to waste.
Professionally adept in theater, radio, and film, he was a perfectionist in every way. He had an act for dramatic lighting, staging camera angles, music, and sound design. Welles believed that the project had to be done right or not be done at all. Unfortunately, there were many times when he would just lose interest and give up or not have the funding or just find something better. Unfortunately, Welles was unable to finish many of his projects such as The Merchant of Venice, Moby Dick, Don Quixote The Other Side of the Wind (until recently). All these failures would lead to the decline of a great man, At the end of his life, he would fall into a greater depression where he would gain a lot of weight by doing no exercise, no diet, and essentially eat himself to death. All these failures should give us a much deeper appreciation for his masterpieces because the ones that were released after Citizen Kane, were just as great as the greatest film in the world.
In conclusion, until you get knocked down enough you’ll never be able to look up. Welles was a man who didn’t know when to quit. Like a magician hiding the ball under the cup, he discovered films under the guise of illusions. By his own choice, he switched to films later in his career after his other radio and theater work was already paying off. Welles didn’t want to stop there; he wanted something more that life had to offer. He wanted the freedom to express his own creativity in any form he could despite the risks. He was true charlatan and a great example of what to learn from.