Newport Beach Film Festival Honors Orson Welles' Centennial
Carl Van Vechten
1. Orson Welles was born on May 6, 1915.
2. As a filmmaker, his three greatest pictures, in order, are Touch of Evil (1958), Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942).
3. Ah, yes, but Citizen Kane tops many lists as the greatest film of all time (with Welles filling the top slot on many directing lists). The fictional story of a megalomaniac newspaper magnate (loosely based on William Randolph Hearst) and innocence lost is indeed a masterpiece . . . albeit a dated one. Newspaper magnates? Not in this century, bub.
4. John Houseman wrote in his 1972 memoir Run-through that the deeper he, Welles and Herman Mankiewicz took the script into the heart of Kane, the more the identity of Welles was exposed. "Between young Kane and young Welles, there is more than a surface likeness; in the dramatized person of Charles Foster Kane, 'Champagne Charley' was finally able to realize extravagances that far exceeded anything achieved in life by Richard Welles and his precocious son," Houseman wrote.
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5. Kane and Welles also shared a fury, according to Houseman, whose association with the filmmaker dated back to their Mercury Theatre days. "A vague aura of violence surrounded the Hearst legend; there was the persistent rumor of the fatal shooting, in a jealous rage, of a well-known Hollywood director on a yacht off the Malibu coast. We made no reference to that episode in our script. We did not need it. The wanton, wordless, destructive fury which Kane wreaks upon the inanimate objects in his wife's room when he realizes she has left him was taken directly from our recent scene in the upper room at Chasen's. During its filming, Orson reproduced with frightening fidelity the physical gestures and the blind agony of rage with which he had hurled those flaming Sternos against the wall. The cuts he received on his hands on both occasions were, I was told, almost identical."
6. Just spitballing here: Kane is the first mockumentary.
7. Some cinephiles regard it as the first film noir. Lighting was used as a storytelling device, as Kane's decency was bathed in lightness and his corruption was shrouded in darkness.
8. The scenes of Kane as a boy are dreamlike, as if they were shot inside the snow globe the expired Mr. Kane drops after whispering . . .
10. The film's attention to detail--from the sets, makeup and costuming to the use of miniatures and Bernard Herrmann's sophisticated musical score--are incredible. Kane was definitely unlike any American picture of its era.
11. Then-fading Hollywood master D.W. Griffith, when asked what he thought of Welles' feature-film-directing debut, replied he "particularly liked the ideas he took from me."
12. Hearst was so incensed over Kane that he forbade his newspapers from including Welles' name in print again. This worked until the Los Angeles Examiner began collecting money for Colima, Mexico, earthquake victims by vowing to list the names of each donor. "The impish Mr. Welles, as alert as the next man to the misfortunes of a Mexican, sent the Examiner $25," recounted The New Yorker. "The editorial suffering caused by this kindly action was indescribable."
13. The Examiner listing: "O. Welles, $25.00."
14. Welles' sophomore picture, The Magnificent Ambersons, was adapted from Booth Tarkington's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about social change in turn-of-the-century Indianapolis.
15. Three-quarters of the way into my first viewing of Ambersons years ago, I was convinced I was watching the best movie I had ever seen. But then it . . . well . . . read on.
16. Welles is not in Ambersons, but he narrates what may be his most personal picture, looking back at the days of his youth and an America he would never be able to visit again. It has a warmer feel than Kane; it's more lyrical, more nostalgic.
17. Welles called Ambersons his favorite work. The film ends with a swinging microphone and Welles saying, "I wrote the picture and directed it. My name is Orson Welles."
18. Could that be what inspired Chris Rock to drop the mic and walk offstage?
19. Ambersons perfected sound montage or voices overlapping one another as they do in real life (and in Robert Altman films). Information that is lost to clashing dialogue is more than made up for in the emotional cues the sonic storytelling technique exposes.
20. Welles set an Amberson family ball scene in deep focus with expressionistic lighting contrasts that threw most of the characters into silhouette. Those shadowy figures, along with their gestures and overlapping word clues as they move in and out of frame (and our ears), brought a stark realism you really didn't see in American films before.
21. Ambersons was in production when World War II broke out in December 1941.
22. Less than two months later, Welles was off to a war-related mission in Latin America.
23. That resulted in the documentary It's All True.
24. Ambersons' original 131-minute cut was entrusted to editor Robert Wise, but the film tested poorly with audiences, and RKO brass deemed it too long and gloomy.
25. With the cat (Welles) away, the studio re-edited Ambersons, cut it down to 88 minutes and slapped on a phony happy ending.
Welles with his Othello co-star Suzanne Cloutier
Provided by NBFF
26. Or, as the Village Voice's J. Hoberman would write in a 2004 retrospective, "It was butchered."
27. Ambersons was dumped in theaters as part of a double bill with Mexican Spitfire Sees a Ghost.
28. Doesn't that title sound like the loose plot of every telenovela since?
29. "It was a much better picture than Kane--if they'd just left it as it was," Welles once told his longtime friend Peter Bogdanovich, an actor, cinema writer and director (The Last Picture Show; Paper Moon; What's Up, Doc?) in their legendary 1970s interviews.
30. Hoberman: "But even still, The Magnificent Ambersons is a pretty sensational movie." No argument here.
31. Like a fountain of youth, an original cut of Ambersons is rumored to be in Brazil, left by Welles.
32. A lifelong amateur magician and illusionist, Welles was keeping the crowd enthralled with his tricks at a party at RKO boss Charles Koerner's home, where the host remarked, "You should have seen the way Orson made $3 million disappear at the studio."
33. Discouraged by a string of box-office failures, Welles left America in 1948 for Europe and Africa, where he hoped to work as an independent producer/director.
34. His first project was to adapt Shakespeare's Othello, with Welles starring as the Moor prince in Venice.
35. The picture would go on to take three years to shoot. During that span, there were three Desdemonas and four Iagos.
36. Welles had to keep stopping production to find more money, and then he had to reshoot scenes.
37. Some critics argued Paul Robeson's stage performance of Othello in the 1930s and '40s, which was steeped in the racism the actor really endured, should have prevented white actors from playing the title role.
38. Whitey don't listen. Others have ranked as the best screen versions of Othello Welles' 1952 release and the 1965 version starring Laurence Olivier (although the 1995 film with Laurence Fishburne finishes third).
39. In Othello: A Contextual History, author Virginia Mason Vaughan argues Welles shot his version through a lens of "patriarchy," diminishing Desdemona (Suzanne Cloutier) to be nothing more than a fleshy prop in the masculine clash between Othello and Iago. As further evidence, she points to Filming Othello, the 1978 making-of documentary that included Welles, Micheál Mac Liammóir (Iago) and Hilton Edwards (Brabantio) sitting around a table talking about the project, but not Cloutier, who was presumably available and could have lent a female perspective. "In Welles' art, as in his life, the female was an object to be discussed, not a subject to speak for herself," Vaughan writes.
40. French critics loved Welles' Othello. It was the grand prize winner at Cannes. British and American critics? Not so much. They really hated the soundtrack.
41. Naturally, it's now considered a classic. Pfft . . . critics.
42. Touch of Evil, which was about a clash between lawmen on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border over a murder investigation, marked Welles' return to Hollywood after years spent abroad. (And it's his best flick; it says so right there in No. 2.)
43. There are two stories about how Welles wound up directing Touch of Evil.
44. One has him purposely taking a bad script, based on Whit Masterson's novel Badge of Evil, and rewriting it and directing it to prove he could make great art out of weak source material. The other version has Charlton Heston only agreeing to play honest Mexican drug-enforcement official Miguel "Mike" Vargas for Universal if Welles, who'd been hired only to play crooked, one-legged police Captain Hank Quinlan, also directed.
45. Yes, Chuck Heston played a Mexican. Don't it make Cheech Marin's brown eyes blue?
46. Quinlan nostalgically visits a brothel run by Tanya (Marlene Dietrich), who barely recognizes the hobbling load with a pasted-on Karl Malden nose.
47. Ray Milland once said of the young Welles to Dietrich, "That fellow is positively amazing. He can write, direct, produce, even act."
48. Dietrich's reply: "Yes, he is a perpetual notion machine."
49. Touch of Evil is composed of ugly people, ugly settings and an ugly story. . . . Uh, did I mention . . . Oh, never mind.
50. The lighting, editing and ways the camera moves keep you riveted.
Frank Marshall holds the clapperboard on the set of The Other Side of the Wind
51. The clash of dark comedy and hardball grittiness in films such as Touch of Evil would be celebrated . . . a little more than a decade later in the American cinema of the 1970s.
52. Just spitballing here: O.W. was waaaay ahead of his time.
53. In fact, he could sell no wine before its time.
54. Ack! Almost forgot: The three-minute, 20-second tracking shot opening Touch of Evil represents one of the most amazing scenes ever put to film.
55. Among the last film noirs from the early-1940s to the late '50s, Touch of Evil is even more relevant today given our border wars.
56. Did somebody say modernize and remake? Actually, you can see touches of Touch of Evil in FX's brilliant and equally suffocating series The Bridge (which has a, get this, Mexican playing the lead Mexican cop).
57. Welles submitted a rough cut of Touch of Evil that no longer exists.
58. The studio, claiming Welles abandoned the project, cut from and added to the rough cut, getting it down to a 98-minute version.
59. "His films are shot by an exhibitionist and edited by a censor," Francois Truffaut once said of Welles.
60. Welles screened the studio version, hated it, and then wrote a 58-page memo to Universal's head of production detailing what needed to be done to make the film work.
61. The studio ignored the memo and released the 98-minute film in theaters in 1958 as the B-movie in a double bill whose A-movie was The Female Animal starring Hedy Lamarr.
63. Universal discovered it held a 108-minute print in its archives and in 1976 released that version in cinemas and on video as the "uncut and restored" Touch of Evil.
64. It was actually a preview version.
65. Using all available footage, including some that Universal had shot after Welles left because his original footage was gone, film editor Walter Murch restored Touch of Evil in an attempt to fulfill the master's wishes from his memo. It was released in 1998.
66. Welles began shooting on the film-within-a-film The Other Side of the Wind in 1970, completing principal photography on what was to be his final movie in 1976.
67. An original line producer on the shoot was Frank Marshall, who graduated alongside Oscar-winning filmmaker Greg MacGillivray from Newport Harbor High School in 1964. Marshall met Bogdanovich at a birthday party for the daughter of director John Ford, a friend of his father's, in 1967. Marshall volunteered to work on Bogdanovich's first film, Targets, which became his apprenticeship in film production.
68. In 1970, Bogdanovich offered Marshall a position on The Last Picture Show, and he would go on to double as location manager in Archer City, Texas, and as an actor in the seminal film. Under Bogdanovich's guidance, Marshall worked his way up from producer's assistant to associate producer on five more films. He is now a major Hollywood producer (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Back to the Future, The Sixth Sense) who founded Amblin Entertainment with his producer wife, Kathleen Kennedy, and Steven Spielberg.
69. In The Other Side of the Wind, John Huston stars as a temperamental film director battling with Hollywood executives to finish a movie. (Sound familiar?) Susan Strasberg, Lilli Palmer, Dennis Hopper and Bogdanovich played supporting roles.
70. Welles based Huston's character on Ernest Hemingway, who threw a chair at Welles during a whiskey-soaked scuffle in 1937--four years before the release of Citizen Kane.
71. In The Other Side of the Wind, Huston's character dies at his 70th birthday party, and his final hours are recounted in a collage of still photos, as well as 8 mm, 16 mm and 35 mm color and black-and-white film shot at the celebration, plus scenes from his unfinished comeback movie.
72. Marshall has said Welles' young film crew would sneak into a movie lot or a drive-in, posing as university film students if anyone demanded production permits. They often invoked Welles' name to requisition props such as a human skeleton or a Porsche.
73. Welles supplied his own Oscar statuette, won for Citizen Kane, for Huston to brandish in The Other Side of the Wind.
74. Of course, Huston could have brought one of the two he won in 1949 for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
75. Welles worked on the film the rest of his life.
76. He financed what was to be his cinematic swan song through a combination of TV roles and investors, including Mehdi Bushehri, brother-in-law of the shah of Iran and an investor in Iranian-French production company L'Astrophore.
77. After clashing with Welles over the direction of the project, Bushehri took control of more than 1,000 negative reels--18 or 19 hours of footage--which were stored in a Paris warehouse through last year.
78. In 1975, Welles smuggled a 41-minute work print of The Other Side of the Wind out of France in a van and had it shipped to California, where he lived with his longtime companion, actress/screenwriter/director Oja Kodar. 79. George Orson Welles died on Oct. 10, 1985. He was 70. Had he lived to this upcoming May 6, he would have been 100.
80. Bogdanovich tried for years to get The Other Side of the Wind finished and released.
81. "He just turned to me rather casually during lunch and said, 'I want you to promise that you will finish the picture if anything happens to me,'" Bogdanovich recalled of a conversation in the '70s. "I was shocked and said, 'Nothing is going to happen to you.'"
82. For years, the competing rights of stakeholders--Kodar, Welles' daughter Beatrice and L'Astrophore--prevented Bogdanovich from honoring his friend's wish.
83. Even a $3 million deal with Showtime was torpedoed.
84. When it was discovered less than a year ago that Kodar had in her possession the work print in Primosten, on the Adriatic coast in Croatia, where she now resides, Bogdanovich's pal Marshall and Royal Road production company's Filip Jan Rymsza convinced her, Beatrice Welles and L'Astrophore to let them finish The Other Side of the Wind the way Welles intended in time to release it on May 6, 2015, and to show it at Cannes (May 13-24).
85. "Everyone has realized next year is the perfect time for the movie to be completed and released," Marshall said excitedly in October 2014. "Everyone wants this to happen and to honor Orson's legacy."
86. Kodar, who is in her 70s, has said, "The catalyst is the 100-year anniversary, and everybody is moving in a kind of wave. When I finally see it on the screen, then I will tell you that the film is done."
87. Marshall, who is overseeing editing, expressed confidence it would be completed, without additional shooting, by May 6.
88. "We have scenes that weren't quite finished, and we need to add music," he told The New York Times. "We will get it done. The good news is that it won't take so long because of all of the technology today."
89. Alas, there has been word in recent weeks that The Other Side of the Wind will not be ready for Cannes, let alone a May 6 release.
90. Original Wind producer and Welles biographer Joseph McBride, who has been consulting on the project, now says it will screen later this year.
91. But celebrating 100 years of the master marches on. To help mark the Orson Welles Centennial, the Newport Beach Film Festival screens Othello at 11 a.m. on April 26 at Island Cinema.
92. At 1:15 p.m. on the same day, Oliver Parker's Fade to Black will be shown at Island Cinema.
93. The 2006 Serbian-Italian-American production stars Danny Huston--yes, John's son--as Welles, who travels to Italy in an attempt to recover from his marriage to Rita Hayworth and restart his career in the late 1940s. But he is drawn into intrigue, politics and the murder of an actor on his set in this fictional drama. Diego Luna, Paz Vega and Christopher Walken co-star.
94. Around 3:15 p.m. (after Fade to Black, uh, fades to black), the film festival hosts "Orson in Exile," an in-depth discussion about Welles' "lost years" away from Hollywood and in Europe. Welles historians and special guests are promised.
95. The fest had not released names as this story went to bed.
96. Meanwhile, Bogdanovich appears in writer/director Scott Ehrlich's "comedic musical" Pearly Gates, which makes its world premiere at the festival at 7:15 p.m. on April 26 at Triangle Square Cinemas in Costa Mesa and at 3 p.m. on April 27 at Big Newport.
97. The cast also includes Lainie Kazan, Illeana Douglas and Uzo Aduba, the Emmy-winning "Crazy Eyes" of Orange Is the New Black.
98. Besides acting in Pearly Gates and helping with the restoration of The Other Side of the Wind, Bogdanovich has been promoting a film he directed, She's Funny That Way, which is about an aspiring actress (Imogen Poots) who says she is a muse but works as a call girl. Owen Wilson plays one of her sugar daddies and Jennifer Aniston is a therapist in what's been called a modern tale done in the style of Hollywood's old screwball comedies.
99. By the way, the 1992 book This Is Orson Welles, which is by Welles, Bogdanovich and Chicago Reader film writer Jonathan Rosenbaum and is based on the directors' many conversations with one another, is an essential read for Orsonphiles.
100. French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard put it best about Orson Welles: "All of us will always owe him everything."
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