Seventy-four years ago, Orson Welles created Citizen Kane and it remains the zenith, the apex of filmmaking. It completed the migration of theatre into cinema. No film before or since defined the nucleus of cinema, the art form of the 20th century, as this seminal 1941 masterpiece did. With great danger and risk, it captured lighting from the eye of the viewer and editing from the mind of the viewer and it redefined film acting. All from the mind of a 26-year old actor/director/producer/magician and visionary who knew little about filmmaking, who cared less about moviemaking, who dared to ask “why not?”, who drove a stake into the desert of Hollywood from which a gushing spring erupted that gave light and sustenance to Bergman, Kubrick, Kurasawa, Satyajit Ray,Truffaut, Lean, Besson, Jordan, Potter and a host of other masterful filmmakers who followed.
This despite the sinister, mean-spirited, attack leveled at Welles by a raging critic of the time, Pauline Kael, who like all critics is dead and nearly-forgotten. Citizen Kane is very much alive.
With this film, Welles also made a bold attempt to solve the last lingering barrier in the medium... quantum time – past, present, future – always so clumsily addressed in the ever-present “flashback.” He used the muscle of stunning visuals ripped by breathtaking editing. It didn’t quite work. It was finally solved ten years later by Swedish director, Alf Sjöberg in Miss Julie.
Welles was born in May, 1915 and died in October, 1985. He was a child prodigy. His life and career spanned the birth and flowering of cinema. He was already a heralded ‘star’ in live theatre when he went to Hollywood armed with what he called, “the confidence of ignorance.” He became a ‘star’ in the movies and a self-contained filmmaker who stirred such incredible envy and jealousy in Beverly Hills, that like Stanley Kubrick, it drove him into exile in Europe. But unlike Kubrick, he could never uncover a patron-of-auteur’ and so he struggled his entire career to realize his visions.
Citizen Kane was nominated for 9 Academy Awards. At the awards ceremony, the audience of Hollywood-ites booed each time one of those nominations was announced. The film only received an Oscar for its screenplay. Years later, Welles received an honorary Life Time Achievement award from the Academy (which he refused to accept in person) and a Lifetime Achievement award from the American Film Institute along with many other honors around the world including Cannes.
He also nearly had a political career. In the 30’s and 40’s, Welles was a friend and supporter of Franklin Roosevelt. FDR, and others urged him to run for office. They explored the Senate race in California and decided he would have a better chance if he went after the position in the state where he was born, Wisconsin. The final analysis was that he would have to engage a remarkable campaign to win. Welles decided not to try which left him with a regret of conscience for the rest of his life. His opponent would have been Joseph McCarthy and if he had indeed run a ‘remarkable campaign’ and won, there may have been no McCarthyism..
Above all, Orson Welles was a performer, an actor and a superb film actor. He brought a natural acting talent from the stage, shaped by charisma, a sense of simplistic movement, a magnificent speaking voice with the control of a trained opera singer, and a vibrant sense of theatricality. He instinctively and immediately understood the embrace of the camera. It was a love affair that lasted until he died.
Who could do the roles, today, that Welles did in some great and not so great films. Films like – “Touch Of Evil”, “The Third Man”, “Othello”, “Macbeth”, “Chimes At Midnight”, “The Black Rose”, “Moby Dick”, “The Lady From Shanghai”, “The Stranger”. When Welles was alive and performing, there were a number of actors with the mature power and aura and subtlety who could have handled some of his roles. Who today? Anthony Hopkins? Not really. Deniro, Pacino, Malkovich, Redford, Travolta, Clooney? The word “puny” comes to mind. Jeremy Irons? Perhaps.
Despite Bogdanavich and Olga and Beatrice, his legacy remains as he created and recorded it. And that includes a great collaboration between Welles and William Shakespeare which produced the best ever rendition of Shakespeare in cinema (even when compared with Zeffirelli’s “Romeo and Juliet” and Branagh’s “Hamlet”)… Chimes At Midnight... the roots of which can be seen and felt in Citizen Kane.