Happy birthday, Orson Welles. Tuesday, assuming you’d not only outlived the actuarials but had quit the food, the booze, the cigars and taken up yoga and lost two hundred pounds, you would have turned ninety-three. I’m sure wherever you currently reside, you regret none of it.
I have four…”cultural heroes” as I think of them. In no particular order then: Welles, Duke Ellington, Vladimir Nabokov, Preston Sturges. What links them? Chiefly, I think, their mutual inability to be comfortably linked to anybody else. Welles is no more accurately defined as an “actor/director” than Ellington is as a “jazz composer/musician” or Nabokov an “academic/novelist.” And Sturges was resolutely neither a standard-issue professional screenwriter (witness his lackluster 30’s credits–and don’t bother telling me about “Power and The Glory” or “Easy Living”–neither are all that terrific) nor was he anything remotely resembling a director for hire. Specifically, he created his own world and expressed himself on it’s individual stage; as did Duke, VN and OW. All four were ocean liners that had increasing trouble finding ports lavish enough to accomodate them. All four were ambassadors, in a sense, for their countries–their countries being their own personalities. None fitted well into a group–none “played well with others”. All are respected much more posthumously then they were at the times of their deaths. (Ellington and Welles, in particular, were the subjects of incredibly obtuse and short-sighted biographies–the awful Higham bio, published during Welles lifetime, actually hurt his chances of making more films, while the merely stupid James Lincoln Collier bio of Duke came after his demise and has since been properly discarded). How each of these men ended up–in an America so baffled and terrified by success that it has a hard time crediting the most successful of its artists with anything more than a weak “he/she didn’t live up to their promise”–is, perhaps, the most telling difference about them.
Duke did the best, ending his days as a star with a busy schedule–though, truthfully, by the end it was the royalties of his songs (and not public demand) that were paying for the non-stop tours that the band continued to do. VN, the ultimate exile, left for Switzerland the moment–THE MOMENT–“Lolita” made him wealthy enough to do so. He never so much as thought of returning to America and lived with his devoted Vera in the non-descript, chilly luxury of a few rooms in the Palace Hotel; a man happily without a country, but who made damn sure he had the best possible room service. Welles and Sturges were famous flameouts–ending their days broke, lost, meandering, caging a few dollars from whatever source they hadn’t alienated…yet I wonder if their codas weren’t, in some ways, satisfying self-dramatizations of whatever the demons had been that had initially driven them. Wasn’t Welles sudden rise equally as unlikely as his long fall? (Also, in some ways, wasn’t he always something of a magic trick himself…charming listeners, seducing you into his moment, unexpectedly taking a shocking turn for the worse… and then–poof, like magic–re-appearing to produce some startling, and delightfully original finale ?) As with Welles, the unliklihood of Sturges life and career was the normal part of his life (childhood with Isadore Duncan, kissproof lipstick, shocking Broadway success at thirty followed by the pile of Broadway flops etc.) His long slow build led to a sudden, unexpected burst of genius activity…and that, in turn, led to the long slow decline. The rise and fall are what seem ordinary about his life. It’s the four stunning years that produced the eight Paramount masterpieces that appear to be the anomaly. Sturges lifeforce–and Welles’–resembles little so much as a seltzer bottle waiting to fizz joyously over…and then go flat, only to be left on the shelf as a reminder of what happens when you forget to put the bottle cap back on.
Sturges last ten years of ignominy–mostly spent in Paris– were filled with misadventures, as were Welles last twenty (thirty?) years. Yet Welles, truly an independent filmmaker, kept shooting film. Maybe he didn’t always finish these films, but who needs more finished films? I think I fall in line with David Thomson, author of the controversial “Rosebud”, and his belief that some of Welles unfinished work is somehow more alive for its incompleteness…that a never-to-be-finished Welles movie lives more strongly in the imagination than what might indeed be there once picture is locked. Welles unfinished films–“Don Quixote”, “The Deep”, “It’s All True” and “The Other Side of the Wind” — have been judged by critics as all sharing a formlessness that didn’t jibe well with Welles personality. Welles, always best at being an adapter, needed a strong spine to work from–Shakespeare so often provided him with a sturdy structure on top of which he could improvise madly (his truly free interpretations of Shakespeare go back to his early “Voodoo Macbeth”–see below clip #1.) If it wasn’t Shakespeare, he tended to be drawn to simple, effective mystery genre set-ups–“Touch Of Evil” being the classic example of potboiler fiction being transformed into brilliant genre excercise. Perhaps “Don Quixote” was simply too massive…while “It’s All True”, with it’s loose linking of South American themed doc-style vignettes, was never specific enough to gain form or engage Welles fully enough to finish it. “The Deep” probably seemed like perfect genre material…but maybe he grew bored with its one-set limitations. In any event, the unfinished Welles film that I think Welles admirers most regret the non-existence of is “The Other Side Of The Wind”, his paean to filmmaking and the mavericks who are drawn to the field.
Shot over a good deal of the 1970’s (always with money Welles made from acting gigs and wine commercials), and starring John Huston as the Wellesian filmmaker and Peter Bogdanovich as the Bogdanovichian reporter/protoge, the film was a slightly mad work-in-progress some of which was screened, by Welles, at his AFI tribute in 1975. Alas, it somehow got mixed up–talk about poor investment planning–in the fall of the Shah of Iran with the negative becoming the property of the Ayatollah Khomeni…oy, what could poor Orson have thought when he got that phone call? I won’t go into its tumultuous history–if you’re interested any later Welles book will fill you in, though for two alternate points of view, I again suggest “Rosebud” as Thomson is pleasantly irreverent about Welles, to be paired with Peter Bogdanovich’s indispensible “This Is Orson Welles”. In the latter, Bogdanovich discusses making the film and reprints conversations he had with Welles in different locations over a period of years–chapters are amusingly headed “Paris”, “Van Nuys” etc. TIOW is a wonderful look at Welles as table chum–his ease, worldliness and outrageously sensible notions about acting and directing, make this one of the very best film interview books ever written. But referring to TIOW as an “interview book” is reductive; reading it gives you a sense of what a pleasure his company–when in good humor–must have been to luxuriate in, at any of a number of exotic locations. Indeed, Welles very presence makes any location exotic–in the Van Nuys section OW is described in the backyard of PB’s then home in the Valley, lying on the grass in the backyard in the evening ruminating on the art of James Cagney…and suddenly there’s no more exciting place in the world to be than Van Nuys, California…and if you’ve ever been to that hellish corner of Southern California you know what a feat that is.
Below are three rare clips of OW material: first is newsreel footage of his revolutionary “Voodoo Macbeth”, shot in 1936. This gives us a glimpse of Welles earliest (and perhaps best) theater work–and his stunning instinct for transforming a classic text into a highly unlikely present event; second is a fascinating clip from “The Other Side Of The Wind”–if I’m not mistaken this is the section that was shown on the AFI telecast, intended to excite potential investors into completion financing (was the Shah watching?); and third is an “outtake” of Welles filming one of his numerous Paul Masson wine commercials. According to the youtubers who post this clip, Welles is roaring drunk and completely incoherent. But that’s not what I see; I see a marvelous actor and prankster PLAYING at being too drunk to shoot another deadly spot for the cheapo wine company that was keeping him afloat in hard times. Repeated viewings have convinced me that Welles is doing a marvelous turn at pretending to be too drunk to work–all, probably, to scare the crap out of the green account executive who was in charge of watching the dailies…
A final note on my list of four: all died with some tantalizingly out of reach project: Nabakov’s book, “The Original Of Laura”, was unfinished…or perhaps it was finished but he wasn’t persuaded it was truly ready to publish. It appears to be coming out this fall, courtesy of his son Dimitri Nabokov. Ellington and Sturges left behind vast archives of incomplete manuscripts–I’ve heard that there is much recorded Duke that has yet to be released, some of it simply sketches of things done by him on the piano, for his own use; Sturges left a pile of unfilmed scripts, several of which I trust will eventually be published in the very thorough “Preston Sturges Screenplays” series (the one I want most to read is the precursor to “Sullivan’s Travels”–a Hollywood send-up called “Song Of Joy” written in the early thirties); and “The Other Side Of The Wind”, rumor has it, is in fact finished and awaits a proper distribution offer…