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Monday, April 9, 2012

Orson Welles

Orson Welles, age 21, 1937
The term "genius" may be one of the most overused words in the English language, especially in the arts, especially in this century. Picasso had it. So, of course, did Einstein. In literature there was Hemingway, possibly Eugene O'Neill. In music--the Gershwins, Irving Berlin. In poetry--Frost and Sandburg. I know I'm leaving out dozens of others, but it's hard to know where to draw the line. Where does genius stop being genius and become merely outstanding? Overused, yes, but what else can you call a young boy who is memorizing Shakespeare by the age of six, studying art, music, writing poetry, and publishing cartoons by the age of ten; writing plays, producing them, and acting in them by the age of fifteen; and is doing Broadway by the age of eighteen? Want more? By the age of 25 he was writing, producing, and starring in his first Hollywood production, a film that today is ranked by film critics as among the best two or three films ever made. To put it in perspective, if Michelangelo had been such a genius, he would have finished the Sistine ceiling in his mid-twenties (instead of 35).

Panic radio, H.G. Wells meets Orson Welles
George Orson Welles was bedecked with the "genius" label almost from birth. Underneath, in parentheses could also have been the French "L'enfant Terrible." Born in Kenosha, Wisconsin in 1915, the son of a part time alcoholic inventor and a talented pianist, who died when he was six (his father died when Orson was fifteen), Welles had a troubled, turbulent childhood until the age of eleven when he was enrolled in the highly progressive Todd School for Boys in Woodstock, Illinois. There, given practically the run of the drama department, he wrote, directed, produced, and acted in everything from nativities (he played the Virgin Mary) to Shakespeare's Julius Caesar in which he played both Antony and Cassius so effectively the production was disqualified from a drama competition for cheating (the use of ringers).

Run for your lives, the Martians have landed!
His first professional roles came at the age of sixteen when, on a vacation in Ireland to paint,  American actress, Catherine Cornell, tagged him for her touring company of Romeo and Juliet. He played Mercutio, and later, on Broadway, playing both Chorus and Tybalt. His deep, resonate voice won him roles both on stage and in radio during the thirties, most notably in the famous The Shadow. He was so busy he was often unceremoniously dumped into an ambulance to get him from one job to another on time. Working for the Federal Theater Projects he learned the arts and crafts of directing, staging such innovations as the first all-Negro production of Macbeth in a Haitian setting. In 1937, he founded his Mercury Theater Players and opened with a modern-dress version of Julius Caesar which drew bold comparisons to Fascist Italy of the time. But it was his 1938 Halloween radio production, War of the Worlds (above, left), about a Martian invasion of New Jersey which brought his name to national prominence; and despite disclaimers at the beginning, was so realistic it caused a national panic (above).

Three Oscar nominations, one win.
Three years later, in 1941, Orson Welles was in Hollywood with carte-blanche to do just about anything he wanted with the film medium. What he did was Citizen Kane (right), a thinly disguised film biography of William Randolph Hearst. So devastating was his portrayal of Kane, the script which he co-wrote with Herman Mankiewicz, and the cutting-edge film techniques he employed as the film's director, he was nominated in three categories for an Academy Award. He and Mankiewicz won for their script.  Enormous pressures were put on RKO not to even release the film (principally by the Hearst media monolith); and while it was a critical success, it was never a box-office hit.

No other single individual ever mastered
virtually all aspects of the dramatic arts.
Welles went on to direct and perform in over forty productions during the next twenty years, among them such classics as The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Jane Eyre (1942), The Third Man (1949), Othello (1952, left), Touch of Evil (1957), and Chimes at Midnight/Falstaff (1966).  Add to that work as an actor or narrator in another 42 films, everything from Canterbury Tales to Bugs Bunny Cartoons. Awards flooded his last years--an honorary Oscar in 1970, a Life Achievement Award in 1975 from the American Film Institute, the French Legion of Honor in 1982, and The Directors Guild's D. W.  Griffith Award in 1984. Yet, ironically, he may be best remembered for his "We will sell no wine before its time" TV commercial for Paul Masson wines, or for his 300-pound bulk. Welles died of a heart attack in 1985. Friends complained in his later years, that those in Hollywood most willing to applaud his accomplishments were the same ones who wouldn't give him a job. But perhaps his greatest contribution to the arts came from the fact that his work probably inspired more filmmakers than that of anyone since D. W.  Griffith.  And not only that, he was also known to be quite a good painter.
Orson Welles Self-portrait, early 1980s

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