Originally published November, 2003.
He had a bellowing laugh, one that shook him and everyone around him. He laughed easily.
One of my few regrets is that I never knew Orson Welles. I heard him live, as a speaker, on a few occasions and I saw him, live, as an actor in a reading of his play, Moby Dick, in the early '60s in New York. Yet, I do know him... from his work, which is an especially intimate way to know anyone. And this is what I know:
He created a masterpiece of art and an unmatched landmark at the horizon of cinema: Citizen Kane. No film before nor since defined the nucleus of cinema, the art form of the 20th century, as this seminal 1941 masterpiece did... it completed the migration of theatre into cinema. 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 a 25-year old actor, director, writer, producer, magician and visionary who knew little about filmmaking, cared less about moviemaking, who dared to ask "why not?" and 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, Hitchcock and a host of other masterful filmmakers who followed. (With this film, he also made a bid 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.)
If you step into the rest of his life's filmmaking work, Welles puts his arm around you as you journey into the intimacy of his vision:
The cold sadness of the mutilated Magnificent Ambersons (hopefully waiting for the uncovering of "his" version); the velvet-gray dream of The Stranger; the spastic edginess of The Lady From Shanghai; the relenting nightmare of Macbeth; the sensual Shakespearean essence of Othello; the poster portraiture of Mr. Arkadin; the brilliant lament of Touch Of Evil; the Kafkaesque stage-show of The Trial; the supreme homage of Chimes At Midnight... and there's more – television work, lost work, unfinished work, clips and pieces.
As a director, Welles understood and respected the actor because at the core of his work and his life, he "was" an actor, a performer, a magician. And he was one of the best actors in film. 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 in 1985.
The biographical details of his life are overwhelming. There are nearly 300,000 citations on the internet and many more buried and yet to come. There are the writings of critics who die and disappear after a generation, as they always do. There are the sycophantic interviews from Peter Bogdanovich and the words and testimonies of Oja Kodar who shared the last 15 years of Welles' life, work and loneliness. It's all rather irrelevant – academic foreplay and post-come voyeurism. One knows an artist through an artist's work.
Besides, Welles laughingly created himself, reinvented himself, changed the reality of his life the way he edited a film. And he laughed about it -- it was a bellowing laugh.