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What Ever Happened to Orson Welles?: A Portrait of an Independent Careerby Joseph Mcbride
Synopses & Reviews
At twenty-five, Orson Welles (1915-1985) directed, co-wrote, and starred in Citizen Kane, widely considered the best film ever made. But Welles was such a revolutionary filmmaker that he found himself at odds with the Hollywood studio system. His work was so far ahead of its time that he never regained the wide popular following he had once enjoyed as a young actor-director on the radio.
Frustrated by Hollywood and falling victim to the postwar blacklist, Welles departed for a long European exile. But he kept making films, functioning with the creative freedom of an independent filmmaker before that term became common and eventually preserving his independence by funding virtually all his own projects. Because he worked defiantly outside the system, Welles has often been maligned as an errant genius who squandered his early promise.
Film critic Joseph McBride, who acted in Welles's legendary unfinished film The Other Side of the Wind, provocatively challenges conventional wisdom about Welles's supposed creative decline. McBride is the first author to provide a comprehensive examination of the films of Welles's artistically rich yet little-known later period. During the 1970s and '80s, Welles was breaking new aesthetic ground, experimenting as adventurously as he had throughout his career.
McBride's friendship and collaboration with Welles and his interviews with those who knew and worked with the director make What Ever Happened to Orson Welles? a portrait of rare intimacy and insight. Reassessing Welles's final period in the context of his entire life and work, McBride's revealing portrait of this great film artist will change the terms of how Orson Welles is regarded.
"With Welles, all roads lead to Citizen Kane, and it's there that many of his troubles began, McBride (Orson Welles; Steven Spielberg: A Biography, etc.) asserts in his lengthy examination of the famed filmmaker's career. Labeled a communist by the vengeful publisher William Hearst, Welles found himself blacklisted in the industry. He left for Europe, later writing in Esquire that he 'chose freedom.' He produced only two movies during the eight years he spent abroad, but McBride asserts that his expatriate period resulted in tremendous growth as an independent filmmaker. Much of the book revolves around the saga of Welles's unfinished Hollywood satire, The Other Side of the Wind, which the author worked on. Instead of fully exploiting the insider angle, McBride instead comes across as a name-dropper, constantly reminding the reader of his relationship with his subject. McBride's passion for film (Welles's films, specifically) and his closeness with the director provide enough insider material to satisfy Welles fans and film buffs, though readers with a casual interest may want to look elsewhere." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Joey: Have you ever tried to sit through 'Citizen Kane?' Rachel: Yeah, I know. It's really boring, but it's like a big deal. When America's quintessential yuppies, the characters on 'Friends,' can casually diss Orson Welles' one unquestioned masterpiece, it's a sign that his reputation has reached some kind of nadir. And that troubles Joseph McBride, whose new book, 'What... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) Ever Happened to Orson Welles?,' is part biography, part memoir, part celebration and part polemic. It concentrates largely on the last 15 years of Welles' life, which McBride sees as 'a saga of untiring work, dedication, creativity, and indomitable courage in the face of overwhelming obstacles placed before him by a society that tragically undervalues its great artists.' It's also the period when McBride not only interviewed Welles for his earlier books and articles about the director but also acted in Welles' movie 'The Other Side of the Wind.' McBride, who studied film at the University of Wisconsin, was working on his first book about Welles when he met him in 1970. Fulfilling every film student's dream, McBride found himself cast in the movie Welles was making. McBride played a naive but assertive young critic out to interview an aging director (played by aging director John Huston) who is trying to make a comeback. Four years later, McBride was called back for more scenes, and filming continued for two more years. Although it also briskly surveys Welles' life and work, much of 'What Ever Happened to Orson Welles?' centers on the filming of 'The Other Side of the Wind' and its complex post-production history. When he died in 1985, Welles left behind several incomplete films, such as the 'Don Quixote' he had worked on for a quarter of a century. But principal photography had been finished on 'The Other Side,' a rough cut had been made, and the negatives have been preserved. Questions of ownership, tensions among Welles' heirs and a general lack of interest have prevented its final editing and release. There is no lack of interest on McBride's part, however, and one senses that a chief motive for writing the book is to light a fire under those who have been indifferent to completing the film. But even McBride admits that it would likely 'show some serious inherent flaws that would prevent the film from reaching the artistic heights of Welles' greatest work.' McBride's descriptions of the movie, with its dated satiric glances at '70s Hollywood, make it sound like a film with the same desperate straining for hipness that afflicted many older filmmakers in the 'Easy Rider' era. The virtue of McBride's book is its anecdote-illuminated account of Welles' later years. As a film historian — he now teaches at San Francisco State University — McBride carefully picks through the myths Welles spun around his career, distancing himself from such Wellesolators as Barbara Leaming and Peter Bogdanovich, who were content to give us Welles in his own highly colored words. Which is not to say that McBride is 'objective' about his subject. He is given to unsubstantiated praise, such as a casual assertion that Welles was 'the cinema's greatest director of actors.' And the polemic against those who question Welles' genius gets a bit shrill, as when McBride denounces Pauline Kael's 'philistine condescension toward a great film' because she dared to suggest that 'Citizen Kane' is 'a shallow masterpiece.' Nor does McBride ever quite answer the question of his book's title or the one he poses in the introduction: 'How much of the fault for Welles' difficulties in completing films and reaching an audience lies with Welles himself, and how much with us?' It's not enough to say, as McBride does, 'The real 'curse' hanging over his career is capitalism.' Other Hollywood directors, from Ford, Hawks, Hitchcock, Huston and Wilder to Altman, Coppola, Eastwood, Scorsese and Spielberg have labored under the same 'curse' and given us substantial bodies of work. Welles left us with one lasting monument, a lot of fascinating ruins and some enticing fragments. If the galumphing enigma of Orson Welles is to be resolved, we may have to look to Simon Callow, whose multi-volume biography is shaping up to be a major achievement. Callow is best known to Americans as a British character actor — he played the man who died in 'Four Weddings and a Funeral.' But he has also written books about acting and a fine biography of Charles Laughton. The initial volume of his Welles biography took us through the first 26 years of Welles' life, ending with the release of 'Citizen Kane.' Now, the second volume, subtitled 'Hello Americans' after one of Welles' radio shows, covers just six years. It ends in 1947, when, plagued by financial problems and uneasy about the investigations of the House Un-American Activities Committee into the Hollywood left, Welles departed from the United States for an extended stay in Europe. Callow has done a remarkable service to Welles by keeping the focus on his career. 'Citizen Kane' has irrevocably skewed the focus onto Welles as filmmaker and away from his achievements in radio and on stage. But Callow gives the radio and stage productions and performances equal time. His richly detailed account of Welles' 1946 theatrical extravaganza based on 'Around the World in Eighty Days' helps us understand why, even though it was a disastrously expensive flop, Stanley Kauffmann could write in his obituary of Welles in the New Republic that 'sometimes I meet someone who saw it. Immediately we start to bore everyone in the room by reminiscing about it.' Similarly, Callow's account of Welles' radio broadcasts makes us understand why the playwright Arthur Miller praised Welles' 'genius with the microphone; he seemed to climb into it, his word-carving voice winding into one's brain.' But Callow doesn't stint on the films of this period — which include 'The Magnificent Ambersons,' 'The Lady From Shanghai' and 'Macbeth.' He gives us a play-by-play of their production and their mangling by the studios, as well as some fine-tuned critical commentary on each movie. He also has valuable insights into Welles' life, including the marriage to Rita Hayworth that fizzled almost at the altar. For Welles, the pursuit was more exciting than the capture, so that Hayworth 'found herself married to possibly the only heterosexual man in the Western world who did not want to go to bed with her.' The same obsession with the process rather than with the result may have been what caused Welles to leave us so many flawed or fragmentary movies. There are few surprises in either of these books. The Welles presented to us by both Callow and McBride is the same voracious ego, the same ebullient showoff, the same perpetual fountain of bright ideas, the same undaunted force that we know of from other accounts of his life. But that may be the saddest truth about Orson Welles: that only death could end his ability to surprise us. Charles Matthews, former books editor of the San Jose Mercury News, lives in Northern California." Reviewed by Charles Matthews, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"Personal and passionate." Los Angeles Times
"McBride, a marvelous critic and biographer, has written a lively portrait of Welles-as-independent-artist....Invaluable." Bookforum
"McBride is heartfelt in his advocacy, and the book continues to compel throughout." Sight & Sound
"Welles fans — essentially, all serious cinephiles — will find McBride's heartfelt defense of the director indispensible, though heartbreaking." Booklist
"McBride has charted a course through the smoke for all future scholarship (and, one prays, film restoration). Twenty-first Century Welles research begins here." Jonathan Lethem
"This is an extremely important book." Martin Scorsese
About the Author
Joseph McBride is an internationally known film critic and historian. His fifteen books include biographies of Steven Spielberg, John Ford, and Frank Capra and two previous studies of Orson Welles. He lives in Berkeley, California.
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