No one writes biographies of film legends like Patrick McGilligan. Among his most popular and controversial subjects are Clint Eastwood (The Life and Legend), Alfred Hitchcock (A Life in Darkness and Light), Jack Nicholson (The Joker Is Wild) and Nicholas Ray (The Glorious Failure of an American Director).
His latest, Young Orson: The Years and Genius on the Path to Citizen Kane, is the most exhaustively researched book yet written on Welles. It is a meticulous recreation of Welles’s life and achievement up to 1941. McGilligan answered these questions for us while on a book and lecture tour in Europe.
In his famous profile of Orson Welles, Kenneth Tynan wrote, “Welles is a self-made man, and how he loves his Maker,” also “One perquisite he lacks: artistic integrity.” That was just a couple of years after Citizen Kane. Would you cut Tynan some slack on that assessment?
It’s empty cleverness on Tynan’s part. I would side with Welles over Tynan. Orson Welles was as artistic as possible, when he tried to be, which was not always, of course. He was also at times a “mere” entertainer and breadwinner. But he had artistic integrity often enough to inspire many stage and screen artists, then and now. (He also had admirable political integrity, incidentally, and his politics made enemies and affected his career.) Citizen Kane certainly remains inspiring, and one of the best Hollywood examples of artistic integrity in filmmaking. Orson had artistry and integrity to spare.
I’ve read several books on Welles, and I don’t think any of them stressed, as you did, his midwestern background: “I’m almost belligerently Midwestern,” Welles wrote, “and always a confirmed ‘badger.” Could you elaborate on this?
His Midwestern roots are important to understanding him. Welles had a fatal detachment from fame and success as they are celebrated in New York and Hollywood. He came from the middle ground—humbler and more ironic—of Chicago. This anchored him, while at the same time what happened early in his life in Wisconsin and Illinois—Kenosha, Chicago, Madison, Highland Park, Grand Detour, and Woodstock—may have promoted his rootlessness later in life.
One interesting thing about growing up in the Midwest: Orson belonged to a household that worshipped the actor-managers of the era who brought Shakespeare and classical stage plays to the sticks. These actor-managers, who did everything backstage and onstage, led their own traveling troupes across America. They are mentioned in The Magnificent Ambersons. They were heroes to Orson, growing up, and in his youth he was able to meet a few of the last of the breed, such as Sir Ben Greet. The actor-manager was an important idea in Orson’s psychology, and in a sense the actor-managers gave him his identity for much of his post-Midwest life, as Orson traveled the globe collecting rag-tag troupes under his own leadership and putting on shows and films.
Young Orson’s parents were certainly a fascinating couple. Beatrice and Dick were sophisticated for early 20th century Midwesterners. Beatrice in particular, a fairly accomplished pianist and an activist in her church groups, seems progressive. Would you call Dick Welles somewhat more conservative than his wife? Could you cite what you think are the most obvious ways in which Orson was his parents’ child?
It’s true Dick Welles was a union-buster in his role as an executive at Badger Brass, but I don’t think he had any choice in that difficult situation and he may have been conflicted by the role he played. Even after what happened during the bitter Badger Brass strike, which I cover in my book, the company was still one of the best places to work in Kenosha. Anyone might have been more conservative than Beatrice Welles, who was radical, artistically and politically. But my research shows that Dick Welles was also surprisingly progressive. He publicly endorsed woman’s suffrage, which was rare for one of Kenosha’s leading businessmen, and he spoke out regularly and controversially at many public events, denouncing, for example, child labor practices. When Orson’s mother gave speeches, he was often at her side, nodding in agreement.
His parents unflinchingly believed in Orson’s specialness, from birth. They breathed that belief into him. They gave him every opportunity to express himself, and he learned that to express himself artistically and politically was a proper life’s goal. You can’t quantify what they taught him, or list it in order of importance. They taught him many seemingly small but useful things, of course—his mother, elocution and practical jokes; his father, magic and how to read a newspaper. They taught him to take himself seriously but also to expect failure and calamity and take life in stride.
Tynan again, this time in 1953: “Welles is a versatile, centrifugal, all-round talent in eclipse; but even in eclipse, unique.” He still had Mr. Arkadin, Touch of Evil, Chimes at Midnight and other projects to go, but on the whole do you think that’s a fair assessment of Welles at age 38?
No, again, Tynan is dead wrong. But it might always be a mistake to make foolish predictions about someone like Welles at the halfway mark. Orson stayed fabulously busy and productive in the second half of his life and career, even if all of the things he managed to do might not measure up to Tynan’s idea of what Welles should be doing with his genius. Very often, Orson threw himself into projects for his own reasons, and while it’s true that not all the projects were finished to a gloss, when you tally everything up, it amounts to a substantial body of work. Welles fans and scholars are still trying to catch up with it in its entirety.
Talk for a moment about Welles’s accomplishments in acting. It’s been said that of all the ingredients that went into making Citizen Kane so great, the most underrated was Welles himself in the title role. Would the film have worked as well with any other actor playing Kane? In the final analysis, who was the greater artist—Welles the director or Welles the actor?
You can’t really say that Welles’s acting is underrated as Charles Foster Kane, since his performance was Oscar nominated. Hollywood knew it was a spectacular job then, and it remains so today. His performance is one of the many things about the film that does not date. It continues to amaze and entertain, right down to all the magicianly makeup tricks he devised to age himself.
You could say Orson is underrated generally as an actor, since the cliché about him is that he was a lazy over-the-top actor doing all kinds of junk purely for the money, but again, there are so many marvelous performances that belie this view—not just The Third Man, but even on the talk shows where he performed Shakespearean passages. Who could get away with that today?
Personally, I don’t think the actor can be separated from the director. That is probably an oddball opinion, since critics usually privilege the director. There are only a handful of actor-directors in American film history who have given great performances under their own direction. Yet Welles’s greatest films—Kane, Touch of Evil, Chimes of Midnight, arguably F for Fake—are unthinkable without his leading performance taking those films to such heights. The exception that proves the rule is The Magnificent Ambersons, but even there, one longs for Orson to make an appearance.
You quote a lovely line from Francois Truffaut, who wrote that Welles always examined “the angel within the beast, the heart in the monster, the secret of the tyrant, the weakness of the strong.” Could you talk about how this relates to Welles’ most famous projects?
I’ll restrict myself to Citizen Kane, since my book only touches in passing on everything that follows. Kane would not have become the unquestionable masterpiece it is without the crystalline point of view of the director and the actor, as mapped out in the script that Welles guided and co-wrote. The film could have been fashioned as a roman a clef of the life of William Randolph Hearst, which was only one of its inspirations. Co-scenarist Herman Mankiewicz was tempted by that line of approach. Kane could have been depicted as an ogre, a despot, which to some extent he is—but not entirely. Welles had a larger idea of the character that makes any historical knowledge of Hearst irrelevant to appreciating the film nowadays. Welles saw Kane not as Hearst but as a prototypical American sultan for whom money can buy everything, except votes and love. But Welles humanized the character in the script and by his acting—the dancing Kane, the ear-wiggles, and more. By the end of the film, one feels a genuine pity for Kane, his self-destruction, and the Rosebud that eluded him.
Welles once said, famously, “The Magnificent Ambersons was cut in my absence by the studio janitor.” Since we can’t see it the way Welles filmed it, is it possible for us to judge the greatness of that film today?
Not really. The film was not cut by the studio janitor, of course, and it holds up as fascinating, but parts that Welles lavished time and thought on were butchered and, as far as I know, discarded. The studio head, George Schaefer, who had backed Citizen Kane to the hilt against all odds and internal opposition, had just been overthrown. The first thing the new management did was attack Schaefer’s pet employees and their projects. This, in addition to the studio’s abandonment of Welles’s Brazil project, were terrible body blows, but Ambersons was probably the worst blow because Orson had loved Booth Tarkington—reading him growing up, performing his works on radio, including an early version of Ambersons. And his father had been a friend of Tarkington’s through his newspaper pals John T. McCutcheon and George Ade.
You record Welles’s life up to 1941, when he was 26, in epic fashion—706 pages, and not a dull moment on any of them. Afterwards, you have a chapter called “Joy and Regrets,” which picks up his life on the day of his death, October 10, 1985, and serves as a kind of review of his life and career in the intervening years. This chapter is 38 pages. Do you think there is another book in the last 44 years of his life? If not, do you think there is something a little sad about that?
Of course there is another book—at least one—and there will be many more books about Welles in the future, I’m sure. My final chapter makes it clear I have a positive view of his accomplishments in the 44 years that follow Citizen Kane until his death. I doubt that I will write that book, because I really don’t have to say any more than what I have said in my final chapter. And the trouble with Welles, for any biographer of any period in his life, is that he got up in the morning—late—and then plunged into a dozen or more projects, often in different media—radio, film, newspapers, and later television—working on all of them more or less simultaneously, and any number of them might eventuate later in some form. Compare this to Alfred Hitchcock, whose life story I also wrote in my book Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light. Hitchcock was more-single minded. He got up in the morning, every morning, working methodically on the film at hand, and the one to follow. And Hitchcock was working, always, throughout his career, with studio staff and assistants.“
Every time I bring out a new movie,” Welles once said, “nobody bothers to review it—at least, not until the last paragraph. Instead, they write a long essay on ‘The Welles Phenomenon’ and what has become of it. They don’t review my work; they review me!” Do you agree that there’s at least something true in what he said? And if so, wasn’t this his fault for creating this legend? Do you think critics and historians’ obsession with the “Welles Phenomenon” has detracted somewhat from the appreciation of Welles the artist?
I ran into this same issue when I wrote my Hitchcock biography. Hitchcock also helped foster his own legend—the wicked torturer of blondes, etc.—and he too became straitjacketed by his legend, to an extent. By the end of his career, Hitchcock had become very beholden to Universal and the studio’s idea of him; and the legend or phenomenon also detracted from serious critical appreciation of Hitchcock as an artist, especially in America. Was Hitchcock partly responsible? Yes. Were superficial critics also partly to blame? Assuredly.
But Hitchcock had a long, consistent run before his own legend began to catch up with him. Welles had a more peripatetic career, with years abroad and many works that most critics haven’t seen, and with substantial parts of his career—the radio and television and political work—left to specialists. One of the problems for critics, in appreciating Welles, is to collect the sum into a whole, and see the entire life and career for the magnificent achievement it was.
That said, I’m not sure that Welles was as culpable as Hitchcock for the legend that hobbled him at times. Orson’s family and friends were labeling him a genius from early in his boyhood, and newspapers began to chime in independently by the time of his first published interview in the (Madison, Wisconsin) Capital Times in 1926. Then you see him being hailed as a boy wonder in Chicago and New York newspapers. I’m sure Orson’s guardian, Dr. Maurice Bernstein, and his headmaster, Roger Hill, and even RKO eventually, nudged this type of publicity along, but there is too much of it to lay entirely at their feet. Orson himself rarely commented on the “genius” tagline, except self-deprecatingly. He didn’t play along with his legend as slyly as Hitchcock did. And that early label put a target on his back for critics forever.
One last question. You note at the end that “Welles always scoffed at posterity: ‘I’m against posterity in principal, I think it’s almost as vulgar as success.’” But don’t you think he’d be amused by the library of books that he has inspired, including yours? Surely his ego would have reveled at such attention?
I think his remarks about posterity and success were sincere, and they reflect his artistic soul, but yes, Welles would have been amused by the vast and growing library of books devoted to his life and career, including my own humble addition. “Amused” is probably the right word. His ego had its unique qualities and subtleties, including that Orson had a famous ability to laugh at himself. I’d like to think he would have got more enjoyment out of my book than some of the others, however, because it would tell him things about his parents and his own early life about which I am certain he himself was unaware, or misinformed.