Unlike most of the people writing about him on the hundredth anniversary of his life, I actually met Orson Welles.
As I stood to shake his hand, I do remember thinking, Wow, here I am shaking the hand of the man who made Citizen Kane.
I had seen Welles a couple of times before, lunching on the patio at Ma Maison, sitting alone, a great, bearded Buddha in all his vast magnificence glaring out at the other patrons. At the time, Ma Maison on Melrose Avenue, was the hottest restaurant in Hollywood. Watching him, I thought, here was the genius who made what even then was generally regarded as the greatest American movie in the history of cinema, surrounded by the town’s most powerful movers and shakers. Yet he was not making Hollywood movies. Everyone was basically ignoring him. He certainly didn’t look happy, on display for all to see. Here I am, he seemed to say—what are you going to do about me?
This is the paradox of Orson Welles discussed endlessly over the course of his centenary year, the enigma of the boy wonder who could create Kane and then do—well, what did he do? Did he make more masterpieces or did he roam the world, illusive, unable or unwilling to repeat that early ground-breaking greatness? That’s the ongoing dispute, isn’t it?
It’s been played out constantly this year in new biographies, documentaries, as well as an exhaustive article in a recent issue of New Yorker magazine (The Shadow: A Hundred Years of Orson Welles).
There is even talk of another Orson Welles movie, The Other Side of the Wind, a feature he shot over many years with a cast that included directors John Huston (also long gone) and Peter Bogdanovich. Unlike so many Welles projects, this one was actually finished, but unedited and mired for decades in legal entanglements. It was supposed to have been released this year, but like so much about Welles, that promise was never fulfilled. Even in death, Orson somehow never quite shows up.
In the days when I wrote about movies, Welles fascinated me—how could anyone interested in film not be fascinated? I could never walk through the vaulted archways along Windward Avenue in Venice Beach without thinking that this is where Welles shot the famous opening border sequence for Touch of Evil, the last Hollywood studio picture he ever made (click HERE to view the opening sequence).
I drove into the hills of Malibu to interview John Houseman who had played such a pivotal role in Welles’s early career. Houseman hired him to direct a landmark all-black production of Macbeth for the Federal Theatre Project in the thirties, produced Welles’s controversial radio version of The War of the Worlds, and was also involved in the production of Citizen Kane, an involvement that had led to the dissolution of their partnership.
Two things I remember about my encounter with Houseman, who by that time had made The Paper Chase, won an Oscar for the role, and was best known to the world as an elderly, rather patrician character actor.
The living room of the hilltop house in which he and his wife lived was dominated by a huge indoor swimming pool. The furniture where we sat was arranged on the deck surrounding the pool. I’d never seen anything like it. The couple loved it, they said, and swam every morning in their living room-pool.
The other thing I remember is the otherwise affable and welcoming Houseman’s reluctance to talk about Welles. “That was all a long time ago,” he said, more or less closing down the subject. He had not seen his old friend and colleague for many years.
Charlton Heston was much more willing to talk. I spoke to him a number of times, always proud that he had persuaded Universal Studios to hire Welles to not only appear in but also direct Touch of Evil.
I also spoke at length to Robert Wise who had directed a few classics of his own, including West Side Story and The Sound of Music. Wise was the middle-class, no-nonsense antithesis of the flamboyant Welles. He had started his career as a film editor and while at RKO worked on the editing of Citizen Kane and then, notoriously, it was Wise who was assigned to do reshoots and edit Welles’s next film, The Magnificent Ambersons, after Welles disappeared to South America in order to make a documentary.
This was a pivotal moment in Welles’s career, the beginning of the perceived self-destructiveness that was to haunt him for the rest of his life. Wise, sitting in his office on South Beverly Drive, still couldn’t believe Welles had so callously abandoned his own movie at a crucial stage.
He was defensive about taking over the production. “We did the best we could with what we had,” was the way he put it with a shrug. The result, while containing hints of greatness, is generally considered a mess and was a box office failure (Kane had not been a hit at the time, either), pretty much ending the freedom Welles had enjoyed working inside the studio system. (View the restored Ambersons opening HERE).
When I finally met Orson Welles, it was at Ma Maison. I was having lunch with a publicist named Michael Maslansky. “There’s Orson,” Maslansky said with a wave in the direction of where Welles was seated at his usual table.
A few minutes later, Welles abruptly appeared at our table, a great lumbering figure of truly enormous proportions. The only person I’ve ever met who could match Welles’s girth was the actor Raymond Burr.
I stumbled to my feet, flustered at meeting the Great Man. We shook hands, I mumbled something inane about how much I admired him. He nodded vaguely, and then brusquely turned to Maslansky who by now was also on his feet. Welles wondered if he could speak to him for a minute. The two of them walked a few feet away, engaged in a short, hushed conversation before Maslansky returned to our table and we finished lunch. We didn’t discuss what they talked about. The last I saw of him, Welles was back at his table, keeping a malevolent eye on the people who would no longer hire him.
At the end of all the arguments and speculation over Welles’s career and life, we are left with Citizen Kane. It remains, despite various attempts to knock it off its perch, everyone’s go-to choice as the greatest film ever made.
If it were not for Kane, it’s doubtful Welles would get the attention he has been receiving lately. His other films have their ardent defenders, but generally no one much remembers Magificent Ambersons or The Lady from Shanghai or The Stranger (his most commercial film), his Macbeth or Chimes at Midnight. Even the most famous of the Welles films that he didn’t direct, Carol Reed’s The Third Man, right up there when it comes to the greatest films ever made, is mostly forgotten.
Is Kane the greatest movie? Whatever your view, it remains a shimmering black and white feat of filmmaking, innovative, edgy, and cynical, refusing to give into the typical Hollywood happy ending of the time, and therefore timeless.
Recalling that brief encounter at Ma Maison, I think of the masterpiece Orson Welles made when he was only twenty-five. All the other debates about its creator fade away. Citizen Kane endures, and that is more than enough.
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