The Immortal Story
History was of such importance to Orson Welles that he rewrote his own life story many times over. Not content with the fawning of film critics nor the sniping of lesser beings, Welles wove myths around himself and left his hapless biographers to pick out the gold thread within the silk.
The truth is, lies have a glamour with which veracity cannot compete; why else our fascination for fiction? Even the greatest, most eventful lives are full of mundane moments, discord, the absence of that ‘epic grandeur’ for which Scott Fitzgerald yearned…Welles sought something beyond mere life; he displaced God and man in order to achieve this; these were the lesser beings I referred to earlier…
Now, if all the above seems overblown, pretentious and absurd, that is how it should be, for Welles was all these things and more. See him – in film smuggled out of an English studio and passed along gleefully – hurl epithets in the manner of a latterday Zeus at the crew recording his advertisment for frozen peas. Hear Him defy His maker with the leading question “For what is man that he should outlive the lifetime of his God?” in Huston’s Moby-Dick…Welles careered from the ridiculous to the sublime and back again, wilfully. Guest appearances on The Muppet Show? Always a pleasure. The creation of the greatest film in cinema’s history? A breeze. Commercials for fish fingers and cheap wine? Well, one must make a living…Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar set against a fascist backdrop as World War II loomed? And for my next trick…
Welles was a keen magician, boyishly enthusiastic about the sleight of hand, the willing victim of the ol’ shut-eye – how he loved to deceive, how he came to believe in his own deceptions…His F for Fake is a case in point: Welles told his audience that ‘everything you see in the next hour of this film will be true’. By the time we witness the affair between Picasso and Oja Kodar, an hour has passed unnoticed; the episode is entirely fictional; one can almost hear Orson’s satisfied sigh. With this film of forgers, charlatans and hoaxers, Welles confronted believers and unbelievers alike: he is telling them that he, the Emperor, is naked after all…but still they look on in awe, and with envy.
His reputation as the boy wonder of the arts, the modern-day Renaissance man, was hard-earned and fully deserved, but he wouldn’t have been that enfant terrible, the great Orson Welles, if he hadn’t improved on it a little. So, regardless of the glowing tributes, the secondhand anecdotes and the paeans of wonderment, he told his own tall tales; a random listing of such lovingly-crafted lies will suffice:
He claimed that his father broke the bank at Monte Carlo.
He swore that he once had lunch with Adolf Hitler.
He stated that he alone wrote Citizen Kane‘s script.
Welles couldn’t help himself – truth had to be stranger and more entertaining than fiction, or of what use was it? As Oscar Wilde wrote in The Decay of Lying: ‘One of the chief causes that can be assigned for the curiously commonplace character of most of the literature of our age is undoubtedly the decay of Lying as an art. The ancient historians gave us delightful fiction in the form of fact; the modern novelist presents us with dull facts under the guise of fiction.’ Orson was undoubtably Wildean in character – both were men of limitless ambition, creators of their own legends, self-made martyrs; when success came, they found it to be hollow, gaudy, unworthy of them; mere public ‘success’ was, somehow, beneath them. Wilde fulfilled his own prophecy by ending his days in decline and disgrace, Welles settled snugly into the descent of his career. Indeed, his later life became a celebration of what had been, what he had once been: Presenting, for one life only, The Orson Welles Retrospective…
So Orson lurched from chat show to chat show, retelling his stories and embellishing them each time. Occasionally, the host allowed him to perform a simple magic trick, and would pretend to be amazed at the outcome. Orson was indulged, but then, he had always been indulged. Welles would roll back the years, regale his captive daytime tv audience with The Stars I Have Known and The Days I Have Seen; nostalgia was his raison d’être, his way of life, a way of making a living. The cozy talk shows, the crass advertisments, the cameo roles – these were tolerated, he claimed, for one reason alone: to raise money for his latest film project, whatever that might be. Hollywood’s big shots had tired of him, thought him cocksure, tempestuous, all too glorious. One could level the same accusations at Leonardo and Michelangelo, but then, they had more discerning patrons…
As David Thomson wrote in his superb biography, Rosebud: ‘Welles was never happier than when looking back and seeing the lovely projection of his hopes.’ This is key: it is a clue to the secret of Orson Welles’s artistic vision. On the surface, it appears that Thomson is merely noting Orson’s vanity, his penchant for nostalgia, the obsessive building and rebuilding of the monument to himself. And certainly, his triumphs were remarkable, memorable, and have ensured the kind of ersatz immortality in which this myopic modern age specialises. But those triumphs were past, Welles’s hopes long dashed – why did he ruin his reputation? What did he ever gain from doling out anecdotes to the likes of Dick Cavett and Johnny Carson, from lying to his many biographers? There is more to this than money, no matter how loudly he protested that he needed it for more highbrow forms of culture.
The subtext of Thomson’s observation is, however, quite literally telling: Welles had divined the very essence of storytelling. I believe that the lies he told and the constant reinvention of his past in which Orson Welles indulged superceeded his need to make movies. Ostensibly denied the means to turn his grandiose, profound vision into reality – or at least, tangible form – Welles told stories which should be true, bestowing poetic symmetry on that tedious, unromantic thing we call life. We seek to impose an order, a discernible plan, divine or otherwise, on our existence – this is natural to us, and we are all natural storytellers. As Wilde said: ‘It often happens that the real tragedies of life occur in such an inarticulate manner that they hurt one by their absurd want of meaning, their entire lack of style’. Welles’ ‘tragedy’ was merely a melodrama, his tragic mask worn or cast aside as the moment decreed.
The truth is that Welles, Hollywood’s most famous fugitive, could have worked there again, but truth often gets in the way of a good story. And when he wasn’t spinning his more dubious tales, Welles looked back with justifiable pride on the stellar achievement of Kane, his world-famous role as Harry Lime in The Third Man, the notorious War of the Worlds broadcast, his magnificent Ambersons. But these could hardly be improved upon, and so he charmed his audience with counterfactual history:
What if…one could see the the Haitian Macbeth, hear the ominous pounding of the drums as the Weird Sisters, brilliantly recast as voodoo witch doctors, prophesied? The play was never recorded; lost to the world…I think Welles pretended to mourn its loss – replay a film onscreen a thousand times and it will never alter; replay it in the imagination, however, and one can edit it – and one’s accompanying recollections – to the heart’s content.
What if…he had been allowed to film The Pickwick Papers, with John Barrymore and WC Fields in the lead roles? He tried to cast Chaplin and Garbo together, as Gabriele d’Annunzio and Eleonora Duse; Chaplin’s legendary Monsieur Verdoux owes its genesis to Welles’s Ladykillers script; ‘Imagine this mind in charge of a studio,’ writes Thomson, ‘Why is the world so unfair or stupid as not to make these things?’ More pointedly, why did Welles revel in such ‘failures’? Heboasted of them, time and again, as if Nietzsche’s madman in the market place were announcing his own death.
My contention is this: an unfinished, potential masterpiece nevertheless keeps its promise of great art – the poignancy of unfulfillment is more important and enigmatic than full expression ever could be. Because the masterpiece is not realised, all that remains is mystery, and the most Romantic mysteries are the ones which are never solved. Incompletion allows us to speculate on the mystery’s solution – we have licence to imagine, to create; it makes artists of us all. Welles knew this, and when the world failed him, he cared little because his legacy was immaterial. Few who have read Shelley’s Ozymandias long to see the tyrant’s fabled palaces as they once were; the elegance lies in the ruins…they leave us free to rebuild, reinvent, to recreate the desert realm, in our minds. And, of course, we are free in wallow in the bittersweet romance of nostalgia. There is beauty inherent in the ‘remembrance of things past’, whether we think of love requited or unrequited, our vanished childhood – the days when the world seemed ours for the taking – or the perceived majesty of ancient times. The present is far too swift-footed for us to capture and tame; the future is unknowable; but the past is something we can create anew, as long as we live. We are all liars, because we are all storytellers. But perhaps Orson Welles was the greatest liar in his story.
Steven Paul Jensen was born in South Wales in 1965.
He is seeking publication of his novella, The Poison of a Smile while writing his second book, Ariele – A Ghost Story. Steve is working on a number of literary projects with Frank Duffy.
Shadows & Illusions: http://stevejensen.eu
The Journal: http://coaction.wordpress.com
The Immortal Story was first published in Sein und Werden magazine.