A genius of film, theatre, and radio, whose remarkable 40-plus year career ended by selling peas and voicing Unicron in Transformers: The Movie.
Orson Welles' life reads like a melodramatic cautionary tale: a preternaturally gifted young man quickly ascends to great heights, only for his outsized ego and public controversy to quickly dash his hopes. He continues on as an icon, but dies half-forgotten, never reaching the grandour he once aspired to. In fact, someone should make a movie about that.
Born to an inventor and a concert pianist in Kenosha, Wisconsin in 1915, Welles later joked, "The word genius was whispered into my ear, the first thing I ever heard while I was still mewling in my crib". This should be taken as advice to prospective parents on how to guide their children towards great things.
Fate, taking its cue stage right, quickly disposed of his parents - his mother died when he was 9, his father at 15 - so that Orson could take the world by storm.
Which he did, at an astonishing pace. At an age when most teenagers are receiving their learner's permit, Orson was off to Ireland living on his inheritance. Within weeks of arrival, he made his stage debut at the Gate Theatre in Dublin, mostly by bullshitting the manager and claiming he was a Broadway star. Instead of being thrown out to the cobblestone, and since he was so goddamn fucking ass-blastingly talented, Orson immediately garnered acclaim and word of this preternatural genius quickly reached back stateside.
Capitalizing on this newfound fame, Welles co-wrote and did illustrations for a series of books called Everybody's Shakespeare. To put this in perspective, by the time most people were struggling to write a three-page paper on MacBeth and Hamlet, Orson wrote and illustrated entires books on the subject.
Deciding he was no longer fucking around, at 18 Welles began touring in off-broadway productions. Impatient to blow everybody's mind, he launched his own drama festival at his alma mater, the Todd School. It was, of course, an immediate success. Besides rocking everyone's faces off onstage, Welles began his equally successful career in radio. This caught the attention of John Houseman - actor, producer, and the stuffy old guy from The Paper Chase - who was casting for a lead role in a play he was developing. At 20, Orson Welles had arrived
With The Depression being all sepia tone and filled with hobos, Franklin "Wheels" Roosevelt began the Works Project Administration, under which the Federal Theatre Project was formed in 1936. Because, hey, actors needed to work too.
Welles was tapped to direct a play for the in-hindsight-bigotedly-named Negro Theater Unit. What's a 20-year old who had never directed a full ensemble play to do? Apparently revolutionize the entire concept of Shakespeare's MacBeth, setting it in the Haitian court, with voodoo witch doctors as the three Weird Sisters, and keep the action so short and shocking that Hitchcock himself would have experienced night terrors as a result. This simply blew everybody's fucking mind and Welles was - again - proclaimed a genius.
In rapid succession, Orson Welles not only turned everything he touched into gold, but turned that gold into a rocketship of success, fueled by his own talent. In just one year, Welles mounted three productions - which he solely conceived, directed, and acted in - before giving the WPA the finger and creating his own company, The Mercury Theatre.
Their first production was an adaptation of Julius Ceaser, set in fascist Italy. The applause from the first show lasted three minutes, and Orson was (sigh) proclaimed a genius. At 22, Orson Welles was the brightest star on Broadway.
Not content with being more successful than actors and theater directors twice his age, Welles also starred as Lamont Cranston in The Shadow on radio, itself a major success. CBS loved him so much they gave the Mercury Theatre an hour-long weekly show to do whatever the hell Orson wanted. Welles must have taken this as his cue to scare the living daylights out of the country, and on Halloween, 1938 he staged a radio play adapted from H.G. Wells' War Of The Worlds, framing the story so that it sounded like an emergency broadcast interruption of regular programming about a current alien invasion.
As it was 1938 and jaded cynicism had not yet been invented (it would be the following year following the invasion of Poland by those fucking Nazi fucks), people went out of their corn-shucking minds. There was panic in the streets - some people even came close to killing themselves, instead of being brutally murdered by one of them heat-rays that were reportedly rendering many asunder, as described on the radio.
So what happened to this punk kid who pulled the biggest prank ever on the American public? Surely they threw him in jail, his career ruined, publicly disgraced, never to work in entertainment again?
Of course not! This is Orson "Wunderkind" Welles we're talking about. He instantly became internationally famous; his radio show picked up a dedicated sponsor; and he was eagerly courted by Hollywood as a result. Hell, even Hitler denounced him in a speech a few months after the incident. Having nearly conquered the entertainment world by 25, Orson Welles only had one more medium to make his ever-loving bitch. It was off to Hollywood.
Falling in line with the impeccibly brilliant life he had led thus far, RKO Pictures gave Orson the best contract ever in Hollywood history - complete artistic control. He could write, direct, cast, edit and star in his movies, without any interference from the studio.
With all the genius, talent and great big brass balls he could muster, in his first attempt in a medium he was a total stranger to, Orson Welles cranked out what has been considered by many to be the greatest film ever made.
Everything about the film was revolutionary: its disjointed narrative structure, extensive use of deep focus, low-angle shots, makeup, sound track, montage, jump cuts - fuck, there isn't anything in this film that didn't alter the very nature of film forever.
And if you've been following the pattern of Orson's life up to this point, you would suspect that this would be the moment he'd be hailed as a god and crowned Emperor of Hollywood. Which he probably would have, if not for the person he based Charles Foster Kane's character on: an evil, Mr. Burns-esque newspaper magnate and all-around world class asshole William Randolph Hearst.
Here's a tip: if you personally piss off the guy who started an entire war based on lies just to sell some fucking newspapers, you better believe he will attempt to utterly destroy you.
Hearst was like Goldfinger and Lex Luthor combined. Here was a man who had people die unmercifully in service of a lie just so he could make a little more money, a nickel at a time, and even then only out of spite alone. There was also the not-so-secret rumor that he once killed a guy and was powerful enough to have it covered up. Holy shit! And in addition, fuck! Fucking holy fuck on a cracker!
Before the film was released, Hearst got wind of what that whippersnapper Welles put together. Before you could say Rosebud, every single RKO advertisement was removed from his chain of newspapers. The billionaire media magnate then put together a meeting which included most of Hollywood's studio bosses and personally threatened to expose the sexual deviancies of their biggest stars and reveal that Hollywood was run by (gasp!) Jews.
Under pressure, Louis B. Meyer - head of MGM Studios - offered nearly a million dollars to RKO head George Shaefer to destroy the film. Shaefer - possibly having absorbed some of Welles' ballsiness by osmosis - stuck to his guns and told Hearst to suck it. Citizen Kane would be released.
For all of Hearst's mechanations to bury the picture, the commotion he raised backfired and the film is now inexoriably linked to him. And in what puts the iron in ironies, Welles' own life would actually begin to resemble Kane's even more than Heart's ever would - as being a man destined for greatness, only to be brought down by his own over-reaching zealotry and ego.
Aside from marrying knockout Rita Hayworth, after Kane Orson became the busiest person ever (who wasn't fighting Nazi scum at the time, of course). He directed two movies concurrently (one being shot in South America, the other in Hollywood) while starring in another movie at night, started a new weekly radio show, and appeared all over the country in wartime support rallies. He was also advancing his own subplot with every sexy dame within sight. That's right: he was married to the masterbatory fodder of every GI at the time, and still got some strange on the sly.
When Orson Welles fell, he fell far, and for a long time. His follow-up to Kane, the brilliant The Magnificant Ambersons, was taken away from him, re-edited, got a happy ending tacked on, and all remaining cut footage destroyed - presumably just to show that smart-ass kid who was still in charge. His other film, It's All True - which the fucking government asked him to do as a favor to them - was similarly never finished or released. Along the way, a national folk hero in Brazil died during shooting, which makes it all the more awkward as it was an Inter-American goodwill project.
Seemingly spinning out of brilliant control, Welles turned his attentions to a thousand various projects: writing a weekly political column; campaigning for Roosevelt; starting up an extravagant USO show; starring in various shitty films in which he was the only good thing about them; and, of course, fucking babes indiscriminately. His next film, 1946's The Stranger - considered one of his lesser works - was made purely to show the studios he could work within their system. It made some money and gave his Hollywood career a last reprieve.
But life for Welles began to deteriorate as quickly as it had risen. Orson tried to mount an incredibly expensive musical adaptation of Around the World in Eighty Days, which was so awesomely innovative and brilliant that it failed miserably and ruined him financially. When he wrote in praise of the NAACP in his weekly column and brought attention to the miscarriage of justice of one Isaac Woodard, he was hung in effigy in the South.
There were two more at-bats for Orson as a director in Hollywood. The first, The Lady From Shanghai, which he co-starred with his (now estranged) wife Hayworth was a noir masterpiece ruined by the studio, which extensively re-cut and re-shot many scenes, and changed the soundtrack. It was released and viewed as a disaster, both financially and professionally.
The famous 'hall of mirrors' scene
Finally, a low-budget version of MacBeth - similarly striking and innovative - was again re-cut and buried by the studio. Welles later quipped that he was punished for committing masterpieces. This kind of wit would come later, of course, and not when his life was a flaming pile of failure shit.
By 1948, Orson Welles - The Wunderkind whose star rose so quickly and burned so brightly it altered every artform its light reached - was finished in Hollywood. All at the ripe old age of 33.
"I started at the top and have been working my way down ever since" - Orson Welles
The next twenty years saw Orson Welles become less prolific and much, much, much fatter. He moved to Europe for a variety of confusing reasons, including tax problems, communist accusations, cheap food and to lick his considerable wounds (and dinner plates).
After one more star turn as Harry Lime in The Third Man - an international success - Welles would embark on an 8 year exile, wandering across Europe in hopes of finding financing for his projects. A self-financed production of Othello was filmed off and on for three years, and while it won the Palme d'Or at Cannes, there was little interest in distributing the film in the U.S.
Always desperate to drum up money for his film productions, Orson whored out his distinctive voice in a number of radio plays and series. Only even when he got his way, he was still damned. His next film, Mr. Arkadin (AKA Confidential Report) was taken out of Welles' hands in the editing room, and no less than five versions have appeared. It would be 50 years before a version would be released that closely resembled the film Orson had set out to make. Cold comfort to a man who had been dead for nearly twenty years by then.
Beckoned back to Hollywood after doing award-winning work on a failed television pilot, Welles had one more chance to prove he could make cost-effective, mainstream films. The result was Touch Of Evil, now considered a classic of film noir. Its opening scene is a single, uncut long shot - an innovation at the time, with a lasting influence.
It has been said this film greatly influenced directors Godard and Truffaut, both of whom awarded the film top prize at the 1958 Brussels World Fair. Both directors - at the time critics - would go on to make their first films within the year.
Convinced he was finally back in Hollywood's good graces, Orson watched in horror as the studio once again took the film away from him, butchered it, and inserted newly shot scenes. Defeated, Orson Welles went back to a vagabond life in Europe, never to direct in Hollywood again.
It is at this precise moment in the story of Orson Welles where the narrative splits: on the one side, you have the auteur, struggling to complete his films - some outright masterpieces (The Trial, Chimes At Midnight) - while continually being scorned at best, and ignored at worst, by the world at large.
Then on the other side, you have Caricature Orson: ballooning up to nearly 400 pounds, appearing in worse and worse cameo roles, until stooping to do wine and frozen pea commercials, all the while dreaming up projects that never seem to come to either fruition or completion.
Which version of Orson ended up lodging itself into the popular imagination, you ask?
Yes, by now everybody gets that he was fat. A big fatty fat fat fat. An M-class orbit-encouraging planet by middle-age. But if you were given the world at an age when none of us even understood how credit cards worked, how would you have ended up? Unless Lindsay Lohan or the Olsen Twins are currently writing, directing and starring in Citizen Kane II: Electric Boogaloo right now, one could venture not too favorably.
So his worst moment was captured as he snapped at some petty engineer while recording voice-over for a frozen peas commercial (no link provided here; look it up your own goddamn self). At least he never flashed his taint to the cameras while getting out of a car, or recorded an album of embarrassing pop music before descending into a cocaine-fueled personal hell.
Instead he simply went along in life, tragically misunderstood in the way most teenagers ache to be, except that he actually earned that feeling of isolation. Meanwhile you're still working at The Gap. Part-time.
Orson Welles passed away in 1985. Since his death, numerous projects, outlines and footage have surfaced, all in various states of completion.
A reassessment of his body of work has since placed him at the top of lists as the greatest film director of all time. His first two films, Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, are now widely considered two of the greatest films ever made. Several of his other films are also considered masterpieces.
There have been many adaptations of Welles' life story, spanning biographies, stage plays, and in film. RKO 281, released in 1999, stars Liev Schreiber as Welles, and covers the director's battle to film and preserve Citizen Kane. Most recently, director Richard Linklater released a film, Me and Orson Welles, which covers Welles' early days in theater production.
His final unfinished film, The Other Side Of The Wind, has been rumored for years to be in various states of completion. Although no less a luminary as Peter Bogdanovich had taken over the project, in 2010 he stated that due to legal complications over ownership of the footage, the film may never be released. Which is unfortunate, as it looks like it'd be a heck of a final film:
But perhaps it's a fitting end for Orson Welles, to have one final masterpiece unreleased. For once, his work won't be tampered with, fat jokes be damned.