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The Best Writing on Orson Welles’ 100th Birthday

The Best Writing on Orson Welles' 100th Birthday

Today is the 100th anniversary of Orson Welles’ birth, and with it has come a flood of books, essays and blog posts about the maverick director’s life and career — as well as news of a new restoration of “The Third Man,” which features one of Welles’ most charismatic performances. Here, Criticwire collects some of the best.

Sheila O’Malley recalls her conversations about Welles with Micheál MacLiammóir of Dublin’s Gate Theatre, where a teenage Welles auditioned and was already calling the shots, and quotes a passage from one of his rare autobiographies.

“Is this all the light you can give me?” he said in a voice like a regretful oboe. We hadn’t given him any at all yet, so that was settled, and he began. It was an astonishing performance, wrong from beginning to end but with all the qualities of fine acting tearing their way through a chaos of inexperience. His diction was practically perfect, his personality, in spite of his fantastic circus antics, was real and varied; his sense of passion, of evil, of drunkenness, of tyranny, of a sort of demoniac authority was arresting; a preposterous energy pulsated through everything he did. One wanted to bellow with laughter, yet the laughter died on one’s lips. One wanted to say, “Now, now, really, you know,” but something stopped the words from coming. And that was because he was real to himself, because it was something more to him than a show, more than the mere inflated exhibitionism one might have suspected from his previous talk, something much more.

The Oxford Dictionary says “Citizen Kane” invented the phrase “knows where the bodies are buried,” although it’s agnostic as to whether Welles or screenwriter Joseph A. Mankiewicz gets the credit:

Given the multiple drafts and extensive editing of the script, it’s hard to know whether it was Orson Welles or his co-screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz who came up with the phrase. Additionally, film critic Pauline Kael has claimed that an earlier version of the screenplay included a subplot with actual buried bodies, which changes the nuance of Susan’s comment substantially. But with the absence of that plot point from the film’s final cut, the comment assumes a figurative rather than a literal sense – albeit perhaps by accident.

The New York Post’s Lou Lumenick on Welles’ brief stint as a Post columnist:

At first, “Orson Welles’ Almanac” ran five days a week. But by spring, Welles’ editors at The Post were losing patience with his column, which was mostly given over to lengthy digressions about domestic and international politics written in grandiloquent style — with an occasional dubiously sourced “scoop” like this one: “Jacques Lemaigre-Dubreuil, the vegetable oil king of France, while enjoying a favored spot in [Nazi] inner-councils, actually occupied an office suite in the Pentagon.”

Jordan Hoffman, in the Times of Israel, on Welles’ Jewish connections and “Citizen Kane”:

In a story filled with contradictory characters, Bernstein is one of the few truly likable good guys. Mankiewicz, who was Jewish, had been raised in Hollywood, and was hewing to the unwritten code that Semitic characteristics had to be played close to the vest. (For further reading on this, see my interview with Professor Eric A. Goldman, author of “The American Jewish Story Through Cinema.”) But newcomer Welles was adamant, and, according to his later-in-life chum Peter Bogdanovich, part of his reasoning was to be supportive of Jews while they were being oppressed in Europe. (“Citizen Kane” began shooting in June of 1940.)

RogerEbert.com excerpts F.X. Feeney’s new “Orson Welles: Power, Heart and Soul,” which according to Feeney’s pitch is the first book to deal with Welles’ politics alongside his movies, including the ones that have continued to arrive after his death. “Even dead, he’s more alive than most filmmakers,” Feeney says in a video on his publisher’s site.

Welles explored the mysteries of power in “Citizen Kane,” and those of family and fate in “The Magnificent Ambersons”. In “Chimes at Midnight” he devised from the fabric of Shakespeare’s genius a structure mighty enough to fuse the great themes of his life, as if once and for all. His calm confidence at the heart of it animates every performance. Gielgud speaks Shakespeare with the airborne, unselfconscious freedom of a man singing to himself in the dark, in his native tongue. Keith Baxter’s ability to wear a private face in public brings a self-mocking irony and a mystery to Hal which makes the character a twin brother to Hamlet. Jeanne Moreau jarred the film’s more dull-witted critics in 1966 with her French accent, but as Doll Tearsheet ably and sensuously loves Falstaff on the audience’s behalf. Margaret Rutherford as Mistress Quickly; Norman Rodway as Hotspur; Alan Webb as Master Shallow, and the mob of faces and voices whirling about the action, are marvels of grotesque exaggeration and the most humane tenderness. Ms. Beatrice Welles, age nine, passes neatly for a boy—she plays Falstaff’s page, and with her clever Wellesian eyes is a perfect, cupidlike embodiment of Falstaff’s soul-essence.

Vanity Fair has its own excerpt from Josh Karp’s “Orson Welles’ Last Film,” about the (not-quite) making of “The Other Side of the Wind:

In the end, Welles explained, he was nothing more than that most American of all archetypes: the maverick.

“This honor,” he said, “I can only accept in the name of all the mavericks. And also as a tribute to the generosity of all the rest of you,” meaning the studios, producers, and other people who provided the money to make movies.

In just a few short minutes, Orson Welles had turned himself from an enfant terrible and profligate artist into a humble, lovable old rebel who just wanted to make movies the way he wanted to make them. What was so wrong with that?

There’s much more out there, of course. As “Discovering Orson Welles” author Jonathan Rosenbaum says in a new video by Kevin B. Lee, studying Welles is a lifelong pursuit, “We’re never going to get a sense of closure,” he says, on Welles’ ever-shifting oeuvre:

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