On the occasion of Orson Welles’s 100th birthday, we present an excerpt from F.X. Feeney’s new biography Orson Welles: Power, Heart, and Soul.
IN THE SUMMER of 1945, Gore Vidal arrived in Hollywood, and saw Orson Welles walk by with Rita Hayworth on his arm. He has it all, he would remember thinking. Not long after, Vidal published his first novel and was launched on a great career that, among other perks, would pave the way to friendship with Welles. The two enjoyed many a dinner together whenever they happened to share continents. “We talked mostly of politics and literature,” Vidal wrote. “Orson was a superb dramatizer. As an actor, he was limited by his physical presence and that great booming conman’s voice. But when it came to storytelling, he was as exciting at a corner table, talking, as he was on the screen itself in a work all his own. But the tragedy of Welles (‘How,’ I can hear him say, eyes theatrically narrowed to slits in that great round pudding of a face, ‘do you define tragedy?’) is that more time was spent evoking movies at corner tables than in a studio. Yet he was always seriously at work on a number of projects that he could never get the financing for.”
Tragedy is the word, and if we must define it? Heed theater director Herbert Blau: “Tragedy — the consequence of a man’s total compulsion to evaluate himself justly.”
The Hollywood establishment’s attitude toward Welles is summed up by the catchy subtitle of Charles Higham’s 1985 biography, The Rise and Fall of an American Genius. The good news is, he’s a genius — and the bad news? He made Citizen Kane by age 25, and then toppled. “The picture became something of an albatross,” writes the Welles scholar James Naremore, “or at least a benchmark against which everything he did afterward was measured and found wanting by critics who seemed to relish his fall from grace.” If we want to mistake success in Hollywood for a state of grace, then Welles is our Lucifer — the archangel closest to the Almighty whose beastly arrogance is to blame for whatever hell he woke up in. But what if Hollywood, and Welles, are neither of those things? What if his life was about something else entirely?
Few commentators have taken Welles’s politics — his activism; his long friendship with President Franklin Roosevelt; his fierce campaigning for FDR in 1944 beside Vice President Henry Wallace; the deep consideration he gave to running for the Senate himself — seriously enough to apply them toward a deeper understanding of Welles’s art. Until recently scholars who considered Welles in any context outside the movies were the rare exceptions; most have played down any hint that he was invested in any ambitions beyond Hollywood. But this is beginning to change. Works like Joseph McBride’s What Ever Happened to Orson Welles?: A Portrait of an Independent Career, Discovering Orson Welles by Jonathan Rosenbaum, and Hello Americans, volume two of Simon Callow’s epic biographical suite, offer such detailed, day-to-day evidence of his intellect and intensity in political matters that it soon will be impossible to discuss Welles as a mere filmmaker, let alone a failed one.
Plainly, his ambitions were grand. My contention is that he was looking to conquer life, not movies, which is what made his movies great in the first place. The medium needed him much more than he needed it — he only grew entangled once he discovered how much he enjoyed the work. If we want to understand what Welles actively became after 1945 — rather than regard his fate passively, as in “what became of him” — then we need to consider that he was not a Hollywood filmmaker who failed, but an independent artist and intellectual who cashed in a winning ticket and, for his first great feat, used the resources of a major Hollywood studio to make exactly the statement he had in his head at that moment. What followed is not a downfall but a striking-out: a phrase that to a ballplayer means you’ve played a losing round, but to a pioneer means you’ve pushed on to the next adventure, what Huck Finn would call “lighting out for the territory ahead.”
Was Welles a player or a pioneer? Both, if we measure him by his talents and capacities. Worldly success doesn’t come to you unless you’re good at the game of it. Yet based on the evidence of his later life and output, his preference was for blazing trails. Maybe it was more than a preference: Comic filmmaker Albert Brooks tells of an exasperated agent who asked him, “Why do you always have to take the hard road?” Brooks responded, “Why do you think I see two roads?”
Welles’s triple-threat magicianship as a storyteller — radio, theater, and movies — made him a social force in the first half of the 1940s. He had his newspaper column and, even after that faded, his increasingly political radio appearances. These gave him a platform so powerful that his activities made him a target, exactly as befell Charlie Chaplin. The two gave speeches side by side at the same left-wing rallies. “A great writer is like a second government,” Solzhenitsyn would later say of his ordeals at the hands of the Soviets. Here in America, the status quo is most deeply threatened by mastery of the public drama.
One example, among many: In early 1946 Welles took to the airwaves to redress a particularly ghastly atrocity. Isaac Woodard Jr., an African-American GI returning home to South Carolina after serving four years in the Pacific, was beaten and blinded — the bulbs of his eyes popped to yolk with a blackjack — by a white police chief for the crime of talking back to a bus driver. Welles took up the cause of alerting the nation through his new show on ABC Radio, Orson Welles Commentaries. “God judge me if it’s not the most pressing business I have,” he told listeners. “The black soldier fought for me in this war. The least I can do is fight for him.” In previous weeks he had already taken up the cause of advocating marriage between the races, triggering a wave of hate mail, and now, across four weeks, he told Woodard’s story, pressed his audience to help bring the police chief to justice. That man’s name had been suppressed by the authorities, so Welles called him “Officer X,” and addressed him directly:
“We invite you to luxuriate in secrecy. It will be brief. Go on: Suckle your anonymous moment while it lasts. You’re going to be uncovered.”
These broadcasts make for electric listening. Welles does not have to “act” his emotions, to persuade his listeners. His feelings come across in the cool command with which he simply reads Woodard’s affidavit and patiently, logically, sets forth what must be done — inviting the police chief, on the level, to renounce cowardice and come forward. The man does not. In succeeding weeks, Welles puts on the pressure, enlisting his listeners in a real-life drama, happening this instant: “Officer X, after I have found you I will never lose you. If they try you, I’m going to watch the trial. If they jail you, I’m going to wait for your first day of freedom. You won’t be free of me. I want to see who’s waiting for you at the prison gates.”
This last is aimed at the many authors of hate mail that Welles received by the bushel as a result of these broadcasts. (“I called up the radio station and they tel [sic] me you are a Jew, which doubtless accounts for quite a bit in your broadcast,” wrote one gent from Chicago. A woman in Los Angeles wrote, “No, Mr. Welles, I am not prejudiced against Negroes, but the Negro, as a race, is mentally incapable of taking a place alongside the white man.”) Rather than be cowed, he reversed psychology: “Officer X, I’m talking to you … the ‘you’ that God brought into the world innocent of hate, a paid-up member of the brotherhood of man. That ‘you’ could have been anything — it could have gone to the White House. … Your mother paid for you in pain. What does it cost to be a Negro? In Aiken, South Carolina, it cost a man his eyes. What does it cost to wear over your skeleton the pinkish tent officially described as ‘white’? In Aiken, South Carolina, it cost a man his soul.” This notion of life’s “cost” prompts Welles into a digression that, as Callow suggests in Hello Americans, sounds like a confession of artistic faith: “Nothing is ever paid back. Everything has a price. You want love? The cost of love is independence. You want to be independent? Then pay the price and know what it is to be alone.”
One can hear what a hugely effective political orator Welles was, whatever limits he perceived in himself over the mastery of day-to-day governance. Here, he engaged the nation to set aside habitual prejudice and put right an unacceptable wrong. The instant Officer X’s name was in hand, he broadcast it far and wide: Lynwood Shull, of Batesburg (not Aiken), South Carolina; he was brought to justice, with the involvement of Thurgood Marshall, then chief counsel for the NAACP. Details emerged at the trial that were even more damning than first accounts: Woodard, mere hours after his military discharge, nearly home, had requested a stop so that he could use a toilet. The driver had cursed him — addressed him as boy. Woodard said mildly, “Talk to me like I’m talking to you,” and for this Chief Shull was called in. He asked Woodard if he was a veteran; Woodard replied yes. “Don’t say ‘yes’ to me,” Shull shouted, “Say, ‘Yes, sir!’” — and blinded him. Amazingly — or, actually, not so amazingly — Shull was found not guilty. “After fifteen minutes’ deliberation an all-white jury acquitted the cop,” Welles told his teacher, Roger Hill. Rosenbaum adds that the “decision [was] greeted in the courtroom with cheers.” Shull won back his badge and died of old age, writes Callow, “covered in respect and affection, at a nursing home,” but this gross defeat nevertheless had profound long-range consequences. Marshall rose to the Supreme Court. The judge who presided directly over the case, J. Waities Waring, was so disgusted by the outcome that he thereafter became an unrelenting champion of civil rights, and was the first judge of modern times to declare segregated schooling unequal.
Welles received letters that movingly countered the hate stuff. Some pleaded that he fill Roosevelt’s shoes and become the next great voice for justice. But his sponsors at ABC, fearful of more such, canceled his show.
This was the America in which Welles was functioning. If we interpret his life strictly in terms of his frustrated relations with the film industry, we lose touch with what he actually cared about, and what he meant to his contemporaries. If we free our eyes from the gunk of Hollywood-Golden-Age nostalgia, we can view Welles more fairly and fully in the greater context of American history. In such a context, his years in Europe after 1947 cease to be an abdication, as many have posited, and constitute a stance. If we take the mythic Hollywood line that Welles was a dangerous and ungrateful houseguest who misbehaved and was sent packing, we buy into a narrative that affirms the conformity of the 1940s and ’50s that brought us the blacklist, and implies: That’s just too bad; that’s how things are. If instead we accept the challenge of thinking in a larger political context — as Welles always did — we’re faced with a tale of independence and a man who was always devoted to building a better world, long before he got to Hollywood, and who stayed on that course long after he left town: building worlds for himself, if no one else, come what may.
Among the several tenacious myths that Joseph McBride’s research debunks, a particularly stubborn one originates with Welles himself: his claim that he moved to Europe between 1947 and 1956 owing to tax troubles. “That story does not hold up to scrutiny,” McBride finds. Welles had a feast-or-famine income that kept him filing for perpetual extensions through the years, but in cold fact he stayed current with the IRS, overall. No debt was ever so extreme that it would keep him abroad. In reality, he was steering clear of the studios’ blacklists of that witch-hunt era. He was firmly determined never to compose a self-compromised letter such as others he knew (John Houseman, Rita Hayworth) had been obliged to submit to TV network or movie studio bosses, stating their opposition to so-called communist front organizations, so they could be “cleared” for employment. “I’m here because I prefer my freedom,” as he told French interviewers. He saw himself as a citizen of the world, now, just as Chaplin did.
See him this way too, and his later return to Hollywood, with its long indignity of his being ignored by the studios, no longer looks like “the lost chances, the wild hopes, the disappointment, the solitude, and the humiliation of being Orson Welles,” as David Thomson terms these years. Instead it becomes plain that, given the mercilessly competitive nature of the movie business, in which superstition is fed by a media apparatus that flatters the lucky, Welles dealt with a more Soviet-like “internal exile.” Affable and all-American, sure — but at its heart subtler, meaner, and longer than even what blacklisted writer-director Abraham Polonsky suffered, because it could be disguised under the “Crazy Welles” rubric. Look how fat he is now, ha-ha!
Kane is arguably a story told in the first person by Kane himself. (He’s the only one in the room when he mutters the word “Rosebud.” Logically it is Kane’s own soul that tours through the lives of his friends, giving itself a debriefing on the way out of life.) The “self” and its mysteries are at any rate the picture’s great subject, and operate full-force in all of Welles’s work thereafter. As absorbed in world events as he was, as passionate against injustice, as able equally to identify with FDR and empathize with Isaac Woodard, Welles was not “self-centered,” as his attackers would have it, but self-anchored. He was ever his own key reference, the center of his own compass. By including himself in the composition, he invites us, like the painter Velasquez catching our eyes in the mirror of his masterpiece Las Meninas, to become just as playfully self-aware. This is a great gift, because it so quietly invites us to free ourselves, to refuse to be slaves, even of a captivity as beguiling as that proposed by great beauty.
F.X. Feeney is a filmmaker and critic based in Los Angeles, and the author of Orson Welles: Power, Heart, and Soul, published by The Critical Press.