Continuing on our unplanned but highly appropriate month long birthday tribute to Orson Welles, I’ve discovered two clips of an interview conducted with the big dog in 1960. Clearly this is a part of longer interview–on IMDB the film is known as “Interview With Orson Welles” (gee, they really put their heads together coming up with that title) and the running time is said to be 57 minutes. According to the only comment posted, the entire interview was screened at the Santa Barbara Film Festival in 2005. (Funny…my film, “The Thing About My Folks” was at that very festival that very year and actually won the Audience Award. Had I been there I would certainly have blown off my own screening to view this instead. Only thanks to the films writer, producer and star–a former television personality–I wasn’t invited. The poor guy seemed to regard my participation in any publicity–even a local film festival–as tantamount to stealing the last droplets of water from a canteen he was clutching while wandering lost in the desert.)
(Does the above rant really belong in this posting? Why not? Our subject is, after all, Orson Welles who–let’s face it–suffered every possible humiliation show-biz has to offer without ever stopping to even consider quitting…is that why he’s such a hero to me?)
Anyway, back to “Interview With Orson Welles”. The setting is a Paris hotel room in 1960–what better place to find OW in the richest period of his expatriation, his American comeback film “Touch Of Evil” having already vanished from the radar after being dumped into wide release without a press screening and having proven to be another “disappointment” for the former prodigy. The interviewer here is the thoughtful and only occasionally goofy Bernard Braden, who I’d never heard of but who rates this quite interesting wikipedia entry. And Welles is, as always, magnetic, interesting, occasionally frightening, always outrageously sensible…and yet, and yet…
This view of Welles is simply not the man who later became a folk hero to the young, underground cinema freaks of the seventies. This isn’t the Merv-guesting, Kermit-goofing, Dino-roasting, Jaglom-palling, Bogdanovich-raconteuring, Ma Maison-dining sage of the seventies and early eighties. That Orson was a good deal lighter in spirit and–although always wearing his melancholy like a cape into which he might retreat at any given moment–somewhat more resigned and gently philisophical. Instead, we see here the middle-period Orson–the Welles of the frightful explosion upon re-meeting his old friend John Houseman (a few years earlier, yes, but you can picture the famous eruption coming out of this Welles–“For twenty years you’ve been doing everything you can to destroy me!” etc. See Thomson’s “Rosebud” or Houseman’s “Run-Through” or even Leaming’s fawning and silly OW bio to read the complete encounter). Indeed everything about this Welles is somehow in the middle. He is exactly middle aged–forty five years old–and appears to be middle-weight (double his youthful size but shy about one hundred pounds of his magnificent blubber peak, circa late seventies). Most importantly, he is in the middle of his journey and as such has not yet settled upon the best way to play out the legend. Striking the right balance between grandiosity and sadness–without descending into self-pity–would come about ten years later. Frankly, the Welles I see in this interview is depressed, ponderous, suspicious and not a little paranoid. Would you finance this man’s film?
He shamefully lets Braden’s misstatement that he wrote “Citizen Kane” by himself stand–his silence is gloomy and forbidding and an absolute slap in Herman J. Mankiewicz’s dead face–and he turns on Braden when the interviewer discusses Chaplin and picks up on Welles own suggestion that perhaps the clown was not really his own best director. Welles, who made the point to begin with, Nixon-ishly shifts into paranoia mode and suggests that Braden is trying to get him to admit that he isn’t his own best director…”and I’m not going to do that, I get so few chances to direct as it is”. In this moment you see how dangerously Welles could turn on an innocent and credit his own dark scenarios to others–is it any wonder that the multiple explinations for who was to blame for the re-cutting of “Magnificent Ambersons” have never settled the basic question of why Welles didn’t simply come back home to save his second masterpiece?
In “Rosebud”, Thomson argues that the dark, middle-period Welles was the least attractive and least successful phase of his ever-evolving persona–that it made him seem florid and out of date–and that redemption and spiritual freedom came when Welles was brutally and publicly attacked by Pauline Kael, in her essay “Raising Kane”. Thomson’s thesis is that Welles–though he never gave up acting hurt by Kael’s attack–was secretly relieved not to have to carry the burden of “greatness” and “profundity” that he’d worn since his youth…and that the lighter and easier-going Welles–the man I first saw on Merv and last saw in Jaglom’s “Someone To Love”–is perhaps the man he’d always secretly yearned to be…a charmer and a bewitcher who preferred magic over reality and who had a bigger heart than even he knew (it must have been pretty big to have carried him along for seventy years). There is much in the below interview, though, that is wonderful–he begins to rehearse the “directing is the most over-rated profession ever invented” stuff that he pulled on Bogdanovich a few years later (see PB’s indispensible “This Is Orson Welles”) and he’s quite delightful in his insistence that he would always choose to hire a friend over the right person for the role…which ties into his theory that he really isn’t all that interested in art and isn’t a true professional. “I’m an adventurer” he intones gravely and not altogether sincerely. I wonder if “Touch Of Evil” and its non-success is on his mind at this moment–he was, after all, given a mighty good chance by a Hollywood studio just two years earlier and somehow–despite the magnificent result–it somehow hadn’t worked out.
Or maybe this is Welles before he came to his own conclusion that he was, in fact, always a true independent…that it wasn’t the fact that Hollywood didn’t “give him the same contract” again as it did on “Kane” (as he bemoans here) so much that he was never cut out to be beholden to a larger group or to be subject to a final opinion that wasn’t his own. Welles at his most successful is Welles at his free and easiest and in this way he resembles nothing so much as a classic 19th century actor-manager…picking the plays, assigning the parts, staging the show, running the whole thing and getting his troupe out of town before the sheriff catches up. That’s the Welles of the 30’s–the Mercury years–and that’s the Welles of the later sixties and seventies, the years of the self-financed projects. (And the RKO years, of course–but let’s face it, that “contract” was an anomaly and one can’t hope for mistakes like that–no matter how brilliant–to be repeated). It’s also the Welles of “F For Fake”–my third favorite Welles film which I implore anyone who hasn’t seen to quickly find a copy of and watch. Shot in 1974, “F For Fake” is Welles at his most charming and slyly philisophical. The Welles from this period, unlike the Welles seen below, has grace and magic to spare. It is this later, gentler Orson–the goo-ier, in touch with his inner-child Orson, who made “The Other Side Of The Wind” which–from the fragments I’ve seen–looms (just out of reach) as, if not his masterpiece, his one truly and profoundly personal work.