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The Many On-Screen Faces of Orson Welles

Ever since the iconic auteur mystified Hollywood in the 1930s, Hollywood has been devoted to decoding him

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Even before Orson Welles made Citizen Kane at 25, everyone wanted to know who the man really was. Already a successful Broadway director and actor as well as a popular radio creator—he was only 23 when his telling of H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds terrified the nation—Welles perplexed people. His talent and boldness were both exciting and enigmatic, seemingly coming out of nowhere and announcing a strange future. Myths around his creative process—bullying his collaborators, rebuking any demands from studios—immediately appeared and, over the years, were either confirmed or contrasted by his television appearances: Talking to Dick Cavett in 1970, he seemed irresistibly jovial, considerate, and intelligent, in complete contradiction to his reputation as an arrogant savant. Yet even there, a careful spectator could detect the man’s muddying of his own story and persona, slightly adapting what he had told reporters 10 years prior—“everything that’s been said about Hollywood, good and bad, is true” had become “everything that’s been said about America, good and bad, is true,” two seemingly profound statements that don’t mean all that much. One thing is for sure: The man was a great storyteller.

Much like his hero, Shakespeare, Welles is at once a legend living through his works, a subject of his and his contemporaries’ narrations, a potential charlatan, and a product of his very exciting and tumultuous time. It therefore makes sense that such an elusive cinematic hero of Hollywood’s Golden Age would inspire other filmmakers to try and capture him. This evidently difficult—perhaps even futile—enterprise requires finding an actor who can echo Welles’s changing demeanor, his iconic contemptible frown that can turn into a warm grin, his great presence as a wonderfully expressive and thrilling actor, and, perhaps, that little bit of unknown that remains.

In 1994, two films came out featuring actors playing Welles (films about him have tended to come out in pairs, offering opportunities for interesting comparisons). Both explored the same aspect of his persona, albeit in different ways. Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures, which is based on the Parker-Hulme murder and which he cowrote with his partner, Fran Walsh, premiered the same month as Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, penned by Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander based on a book by Rudolph Grey. Both films are set in the 1950s and follow characters who find inspiration in Welles to liberate themselves. Jackson’s titular creatures are Pauline (Melanie Lynskey) and Juliet (Kate Winslet), two rebellious teenage girls who find comfort from their frustrating lives in each other. Together, their imaginations run wild; Jackson represents their fantastic visions on screen and paints their lesbian relationship as, first and foremost, a union that allows them to dream together, going way beyond the cliché of unbridled teenage horniness. Welles comes into the picture as yet another element in their reverie: Juliet first expresses her fear of him when she refuses to make his picture part of the shrine they’ve built to their “saints,” the celebrities whom they are obsessed with and will one day join in the “Fourth World.”

Later, however, the girls go see The Third Man, in which Welles famously plays the deceitful Harry Lime, and once outside the theater, they find themselves being followed by his shadowy figure made flesh. Jean Guérin plays Welles as Lime with an ironic and piercing gaze, while cinematographer Alun Bollinger frames him as Carol Reed once did, in angled and chiaroscuro shots. That Guérin looks more like Welles from behind doesn’t really matter: Rendered in black and white within the film’s colorful images, he appears as the girls perceive him, mysterious yet fascinating. “I have never in my life seen anything in the same category of hideousness, but I adore him!” writes Pauline in her journal. Indeed, after their imaginary chase, the girls arrive in Pauline’s bedroom and pretend, in turns, that they are Welles “ravishing” the other. Through Welles’s complex effect on them, Pauline and Juliet experience a kind of sexual transference; it seems likely that Welles would have been flattered by such an argument for the powerful impression his acting could make.

Famously, the worst director of all time was very much inspired by the greatest. In Burton’s film, Welles’s presence is felt as Ed Wood (Johnny Depp) continuously fails to make it big yet manages to bring his cinematic visions to life anyway, always referring to the precocious Welles as his model. Despite their reputations, these two are not so different; after Kane, Welles notoriously struggled to get the funding and the creative independence he needed. He appears in Ed Wood in one scene only, played by Vincent D’Onofrio and dubbed by voice actor Maurice LaMarche, and their shared struggle is confirmed by Welles himself. “Visions are worth fighting for,” he tells young Ed. D’Onofrio is perfect casting in terms of physical resemblance, and he adopts Welles’s composure, with his head tilt and his low mouth, while Stefan Czapsky’s beautiful black-and-white cinematography keeps his face in darkness and emphasizes the iconic creases on his forehead. Wood experiences this moment like a dream and Burton frames it as such: an encounter with the myth, rather than the man himself, a godlike figure for Wood as it is for Pauline and Juliet, encouraging the young director to never “spend your life making someone else’s dreams.”

Rather than explore Welles’s aura, two 1999 films focused on his unorthodox directing practices—but, again, with an affinity for the surrounding myths. RKO 281 was first meant to be a big cinema production directed by Ridley Scott with a cast of A-list stars but, ironically for a film about the making of Citizen Kane, it was reduced to a TV movie starring less bankable actors due to production’s exorbitant costs. Highly fictionalized (screenwriter John Logan admitted to doing very little historical research into his subject), Welles is played by the inappropriately tall Liev Schreiber, who resembles his character only through his hair and costume and, like his predecessors, is older than Welles was at the time. Painting the director as a creative and jubilant maniac bent on provoking the most powerful, it suggests that Kane was inspired solely by the young man’s encounter with newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, whom Welles only truly met after the film’s release. In reality, Welles based his Citizen Kane protagonist on many people and was encouraged, rather than unsuccessfully dissuaded, to make the film by his cowriter, Herman J. Mankiewicz. Scored with the jazzy background music that has become a lazy indicator for the 1940s, RKO 281 doesn’t try to get to any truth about Welles, but instead revels in the sugarcoated, overblown myth of an irascible boy wonder who felt a little bad about his selfishness, but really did deserve his laurels.

Tim Robbins’s more ambitious and weirder Cradle Will Rock, released that same year, refreshingly places Welles in an exciting ecosystem rather than isolating him in his avant-garde talent. Centered on yet another historically significant moment in the man’s life, it shows Welles in his theater days as his Mercury Theatre tries to put on an exciting new play that gives its name to the film. Robbins focuses on various protagonists (some of them fictionalized) involved in or surrounding the work, from the heartbroken playwright Marc Blitzstein (Hank Azaria) to a homeless young woman looking for a break (Emily Watson) to the painter Diego Rivera (Rubén Blades), who’s trying to keep the revolutionary message of his commissioned mural. The spirit of the time is the hero of the story, as the House Un-American Activities Committee comes down on workers’ unions and tries to make art apolitical (Nelson Rockefeller amusingly decides that Picasso’s abstract shapes are acceptable because they’re thoroughly meaningless). Famously, Welles and his troupe had to premiere their show in another theater, with the actors singing from the audience rather than the stage so as not to break union rules, and the result was brilliant. Welles doesn’t stand out in this Altman-inspired film but, in Angus MacFadyen’s frenzied performance, he comes through as a stereotypical mad genius, always drinking and flinging his arms about—a depiction that stands in stark contrast to the articulate but composed man Welles was said to be. However, MacFadyen does get his characteristic delivery and wit right. Most revelatory is the presentation of Welles as a collaborator, a difficult one perhaps, yet one who thrived on challenges with inventiveness and great courage.

Welles’s place in history is indeed fascinating: Having traveled around Europe while fascism expanded, challenged the conservative intelligentsia with socialist plays, and lived through the peak and demise of the Hollywood studio system, he seems to have taken part in many of the 20th century’s most important moments. Oliver Parker’s 2006 film Fade to Black takes this idea and runs with it very, very far. What if Orson Welles had been involved in America’s postwar effort to help the Christian Democrats win the Italian elections? Yet the story starts from a factual point: Welles did in fact go to Italy in 1949 to act in the film Black Magic, in which he played, of course, a magician. Things take a turn for the weird when a costar dies in Welles’s arms and whispers his own version of “Rosebud,” launching the American star on a search for … something. It soon becomes evident that the character didn’t really need to be Orson Welles, especially since Danny Huston isn’t very convincing in the role. His on-screen introduction is helplessly hilarious: An unidentified man is seen walking through an airport and handing his passport to customs, his identity revealed only when the Italian guard says, “Mr. Orson Welles?” and a shot on his documents shows a picture of a man who is, undeniably, Danny Huston.

The most complex and convincing portrayal of Welles on film is also one of the most recent, and one that doesn’t limit itself to only one aspect of his legend. As its title suggests, Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles (2008), based on the novel by Robert Kaplow, uses the perspective of its main character to paint an indirect portrait. This strategy is particularly fitting since, like Richard (Zac Efron, as great as ever) the hero, we are all trying to understand Welles. A 19-year-old desperate to become a great actor, Richard manages to get himself cast in Welles’s Mercury Theatre representation of Julius Caesar a week before opening night, and gets to witness the already iconic director at work. Although not the main character, Welles is crucial and presented in various modes of behavior, which meant that Linklater had to cast the best possible Welles for the film. He found his solution in New York City, where British actor Christian McKay was performing in a play about Welles.

McKay’s physical appearance is reminiscent of the director, but most importantly, his speech has the same inflections and easy, articulate flow, while his face can go from contempt to genuine understanding in a flash. Linklater embraces Welles’s complexity instead of deciding whether he was nice or cruel, and lets it translate through McKay’s delicate performance. When Welles has to act like a good husband for his pregnant wife who visits him on stage, he is as loving as he was seductive with his mistress 30 seconds prior. The ambiguities of his personality feel more realistic than any final judgment: He did treat his actors like cattle, but he also admired them and knew that he needed them, and would remind them of that. Rather than needing resolution, the contradictions are maintained as the natural eccentricities of this particular man. For the first time in a film about him, Welles’s precision and talent are seen in action, together with his chronic lateness and callous perfectionism. The appeal and ugliness of both his personality and his ambition are on display, converging myth and reality into one captivating performance.

David Fincher’s Mank also keeps Welles out of the spotlight, but places him even further in the film’s deep focus. Written by David’s father, Jack, and based on Pauline Kael’s famous and disputed account of the making of Citizen Kane, the film offers another version of history in which Welles reaps the narrative benefits of Herman J. Mankiewicz’s years of alcoholism, dangerous antiestablishment behaviors, and jealous ruminations on Hollywood. Fincher constructs his film with a series of flashbacks, as had become customary in 1940s Hollywood, and in fact follows Kane’s structure closely. But unlike Welles’s (and Mank’s!) film, Fincher adopts this strategy not to paint “an impression” of Mank, but rather to reveal how the writer took inspiration from his surroundings and his life. In this corrective-history-book approach, Welles’s presence barely registers, which paradoxically encourages our hindsight bias: Of course this seemingly insignificant character in the story would come to be its main, perhaps undeserving star! Introduced when he calls Mank just after the writer has arrived in his writing cabin, Welles is first shown sideways, emphasizing Tom Burke’s prominent cheeks and expertly timed delivery through the phone. Already Welles-like in Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir, the actor has nevertheless clearly worked on his voice and tone, as did the other performers who truly match the sing-song accentuations of the time. Burke also has more of the calm superiority that Welles was said to have: Although impulsive at times, this Welles is more calculating and confident than he is hysterical.

In his final, dramatic appearance on screen, Welles is once again put on a second plane, even as he violently resists Mank’s request to be credited on Kane. By focusing so little on the resulting film and instead imagining Mank’s writing of it, Fincher barely hints at the fact that this script did have to be directed by someone, and that perhaps Welles’s input wasn’t limited to giving his writer the “best working conditions” and cruelly trying to pay him off in exchange for sole recognition. As a portrait of a personality forgotten by history, Mank is rather successful. Nevertheless, it seems to want to oversimplify the tense yet fruitful meeting of two of the greatest creative minds of their time, reducing it to a dispute between a washed-out but brilliant writer and an angry con artist.

Whether Welles’s contribution to the Kane script was significant enough to legitimize Mank’s sharing his screenwriting Oscar with him remains unclear. Welles himself is still ambiguous, as a man and as an artist, and the various cinematic depictions of his genius and selfishness, his collaborative mind or his bullying habits, offer only glimpses of who he may have been. It almost feels as though the best way to portray Welles would be through the I’m Not Here approach: Like Bob Dylan, Welles was a magician and a shape-shifter who couldn’t be pinned down, a borrower and a player, on stage as in life. Every attempt to demystify him only makes him more mysterious. But perhaps no single film can explain a man’s life. No, I guess Mank, as well as Heavenly Creatures, Ed Wood, and all these other films, are just ... pieces in a jigsaw puzzle.