Today – May 6, 2015 – is Orson Welles’ 100th birthday. First take some time to study this portrait of Welles by film director Henry Jaglom, drawn in the 1980s, late in Welles’ life.
There are many reasons why Welles is treasured by so many; only some of the reasons have to do with what he did. The rest concerns how he did it, both in his successes and his failures.
First: he was by nature theatrical. How voice was an instrument he played with precision and finesse, his finest asset as an actor. But he did not act solely on stage or before cameras or microphones. He got into the theater by bluffing his way into a part in a play while he was traveling in Ireland. He told the director he was a visiting star from America, no doubt using the mellifluous assurance that was his strongest vocal trait. Who could doubt him? So we envy that bravado. He was well suited to commanding roles, even when playing The Shadow on radio – a job I’m sure he took solely for the money. (It did not hurt that he came to the show when the scripts were being written by Edith Meiser, who would later write for the Sherlock Holmes radio show starring Basil Rathbone; her scripts were well superior to those of subsequent writers.) Whatever the truth, Orson Welles generated a confidence that was enviable. So, we envy him. He was wise to drop his first name, George; there were already too many Georges with their own myths, but very few Orsons. Now we would call that branding, not in the sense of something done to cattle, but something done with images. There is a foolish notion that artists should have a brand, whether it be van Gogh’s ravaged expression as he stares out, his ear bandaged, or Pollock’s macho swagger, or what-have-you. Welles made good use of his brand, but I will bet (on the basis of very little research) that he didn’t care much about it.
Second, his career inverted the experience of so many of us. Working in the arts requires some steely resolve, some wry acceptance of the harder facts, and usually a bit of masochism. We are not made for swagger, or bluff as Welles practiced it that day in the Irish theater. And many of us are denied the opportunity to show those traits. What we end up doing is a long, at times Sisyphean effort, up the hill for decades, hoping the rock we push will not slip and slide back down. A successful artist, in the most basic sense of the phrase, is one who can at least hold steady year after year, and perhaps move upward to greater personal or professional success. Orson Welles had it much harder toward the end of his life than at the beginning. He won success with what seems an indecently small amount of effort; by the end, though world-famous and revered, it was almost impossible for him to get a project started, much less finished. Along the way were strewn movies that never came about, countless hours spent on seeds that never germinated. In that, most visual artists can empathize. At least a failed painting can be painted over, or cut up and thrown away, but the hours cannot be regained. Best to take what lessons can be learned and move on. So he began very differently from us, but ended up a struggling artist, grasping for that handhold with which to pull himself upward. He died at his typewriter, working at a script. Again, artists envy him that. To always have something to work on, to keep chasing inspiration in that delicious and sometimes rewarding pursuit, is an important part of what art is about. If you can do without making art, do so. Step aside, retire, leave room for those who could no more stop making art than they could stop breathing. Art should be the province of the dreamer, the fanatic, the lover. Orson Welles had those qualities, or suggested them when he chose. We are like him and unlike him simultaneously. To make an audience admire you, you must prove to be something beyond what they are, yet to make them empathize, you must show how you are like them. That might be Orson Welles’ greatest achievement. He succeeded and struggled, failed and failed again, and made it big a few times – enough, I think, for Posterity to sit up and take notice.