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Orson Welles: Giant Of Cinema, Maker Of Myths


Was it possible for anyone who loved the movies not to feel a rush of real grief at the death of Orson Welles?

Grief not only for the man, but for the way death once again illumined his life: the most extreme case in films of opportunities lost, chances ruined, potential wasted.

Think of it: to have made, at the age of 25, the film hailed, for the next half-century, as the greatest of all time; to have followed, at 26, with another masterpiece that many believe surpassed the first--and then to be practically locked out of the film studios for the remaining 45 years of your life.

To have film after film aborted before production, seized from your control, re-edited, butchered, chopped up or discarded; to be forced into a wandering exile, financing movies out of your own pocket, or by a succession of dubious financial deals; and to finally achieve your highest visibility as a TV wine pitchman. What a string of terrible ironies. What a farce and what a tragedy.

Irony upon irony: This man, reduced to penurious film making, had the most lavish sensibility of any of the world's great directors. His movies are dense, enormous, packed with deep-focus imagery, rich overlapping dialogue, the longest tracking shots, the most complicated takes, stories that ranged over the broadest geographical and moral range.

Welles was a poet of memory, magic, grandiose nightmares, the death of kings, vanished epochs. His films are a feast--but as time went on, they were feasts increasingly made from slender means, as if by a clever host who tries to please his guests though his pockets are empty (and always, somehow, does).

He died in the midst of another typically Wellesian ferment--with the smoking ruins of one project around him, and his last film still tied up in the French courts in a Byzantine legal tangle worthy of "Bleak House." The cynical might shake their heads and suggest that Welles' problems lay inside him, that his fate was written.

But there's another way to look at Orson Welles, just as there were six different ways to look at Charles Foster Kane. Remember the audience's response last year to "Amadeus"--that tale of the downfall of music's supreme prodigy? They laughed, they wept. How stupid and heartless were Mozart's detractors; how ignoble his foes; how obtuse his patrons! If we had been alive and in power, surely we would not have let Mozart die like this--uncelebrated, unheard.

So how does this relate to Orson Welles? Welles, who died not in poverty but in a near parody of baronial splendor, letting his pet poodle lap up Evian water from ashtrays at Ma Maison?

Easily. Like Mozart, Welles, from the age of 12, was one of those incomprehensible child prodigies whose youthful feats beggar the imagination. There has been no one like him in movies before or since--just as there have been no other Mozarts.

No one ever mastered the art of film direction so fast or completely, with such amazing fluency and grace. And, like Mozart, Welles was robbed of his rightful position and metier. Who can say who suffered more: Mozart, composing to the very end, or Welles, surrounded by trappings of fame but prevented from practicing the craft he loved?

Perhaps this all begins to seem like sentimental hyperbole. Surely, you might say, if several generations of Hollywood executives believed that Orson Welles could not be trusted to direct, they could not be entirely wrong or stupid. There must be some logic behind their decisions.

Yet, does it make any sense to believe that the maker of "Citizen Kane"--that most sparkling, intelligent and alive of movie masterpieces--immediately lost all the protean gifts that went into its creation? How?

If Orson Welles--for all his faults, real or imagined--had been backed, at any point in his career, as he was with "Kane," he probably would have surpassed it a number of times. (Many, of course, believe he did surpass it: with "The Magnificent Ambersons," "Touch of Evil" and "Chimes at Midnight".) He should have made, not 12 movies, but 40. No other country's film industry ever treated a legendary director the way America's treated Welles. It is a disgrace that will not be lived down or erased for many years.

Why was Welles so badly served, by executives, by film reviewers, even his erstwhile admirers? Henry Jaglom, Welles' friend and collaborator, still speaks bitterly of his fruitless odyssey to secure financing for Welles' screenplay "The Big Brass Ring." (Informed that financing was possible if one of seven actors took the lead, Jaglom and Welles contacted them all; all of them turned him down.)

Jaglom also tells the disturbing story of a young film maker, once also Welles's friend, who briefly assumed the kind of industry clout Welles lacked--yet persistently avoided helping him. According to Jaglom, he did worse. Given for comment a novel Welles wished to film, he urged Welles to drop it--only to film it himself several years later.

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