Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles, documentary, rated PG-13, Center for Contemporary Arts, 3.5 chiles This is the biggest electric train set a boy ever had! — Orson Welles, on his first visit to a movie studio Orson Welles was hailed as a genius at 18 months and derided as a has-been before he was 25. His 1941 film, Citizen Kane, tops the American Film Institute’s list of the greatest movie ever made. He blazed like a comet through the worlds of theater and film, and died at the age of seventy trailing a spectacular string of legendary successes and failures in his wake. He was that enduring biblical cliché, a prophet not without honor except in his own country, a darling of European critics, and often a whipping boy in the American critical press. In the 30 years since his death, his reputation has been on the rise, and the carpings of his critics have receded. Films like Touch of Evil and Chimes at Midnight, once disparaged, are now generally considered masterpieces. The Other Side of the Wind, a satire starring John Huston that was mired (like many of his projects) in financial and legal difficulties and unfinished at his death, is to be completed and released this year to mark the 100th anniversary of his birth.
In other words, this is a guy well worth another look, and that is what veteran filmmaker Chuck Workman gives us in Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles (the title alludes to Welles’ considerable talent as a stage magician). Some cinephiles and Welles mavens may sneer that Workman offers nothing new to the already well-chewed feast of the great man’s biography, but for most of us it’s a chance to watch, wonder, and sigh over the highlights and missed opportunities in the life of a theatrical genius who was probably his own biggest fan and worst enemy.
Workman carves up his subject’s life into chronological chapters. “1915 to 1941: The Boy Wonder” starts us off with Welles’ birth and boyhood in Kenosha, Wisconsin, where the family doctor recognized signs of precocity in the toddler and showered him with gifts designed to bring it out. “He was fawned on as remarkable from an early age,” notes one biographer, actor Simon Callow; and Welles reflects with wry amusement that “there’s nothing more hateful on earth” than a child prodigy, adding, “I was one of them.”
This section takes us through his school days, when his theatrical talent began to emerge, and when his inability to play nicely with others also attracted notice. “He had no empathetic skills,” recalls a classmate. The film moves on through his early successes, as he ran off and lied about his age to begin a professional theater career that soon brought him to New York, and his collaboration with John Houseman in the Mercury Theatre, both on stage and on the air. That led to the legendary 1938 broadcast of The War of the Worlds, a Halloween prank that panicked thousands of gullible radio listeners with its breathless news coverage of Martians landing in New Jersey and brought a barrage of lawsuits and a national scandal. “I didn’t go to jail,” Welles quipped. “I went to Hollywood.”
Workman’s first chapter ends with Citizen Kane, which established Welles’ credentials as a cinematic genius but earned tepid critical response and a lackluster box office. In the next section, “1942 to 1949: The Outsider,” Workman begins to chronicle the odyssey that set Welles adrift from Hollywood. His second feature, The Magnificent Ambersons, though maimed by studio recutting, was still a critical success but lost money. And from then on, it’s a career of almost mind-boggling ups and downs, with the downs carrying the day as Welles sparred with studio executives and generally came out on the short end. Callow marvels at how “this extraordinary man was outwitted by such lesser men.”
Workman keeps things moving with a nimble narrative that cuts between a fascinating assemblage of clips from films and rare stage footage, along with extensive reminiscences and observations from family, friends, critics, lovers, admiring colleagues, and plenty of old television interviews with the great man himself, at different ages, stages of health, periods of accomplishment and frustration, moods, and attitudes. Sometimes he’s self-aggrandizing, sometimes self-justifying, sometimes self-lacerating, but always magnetic and entertaining.
As the young genius aged and failed, slamming Hollywood doors behind him and alienating the powerful with his antic, arrogant, and often irresponsible behavior, dodging the tax man, marrying and divorcing, ballooning into an obese caricature, working as an actor and, later, an advertising shill (“We will sell no wine before its time”) to try to bankroll his directing dreams, that early promise receded further and further from his grasp. And yet even his glancing engagements with excellence as he explored and pioneered independent filmmaking left him standing taller and casting a longer shadow than most of his contemporaries.
The test of Workman’s collection of clips and stories will be not so much in whether it breaks new ground, but in its success in bringing a new audience to its subject, and in reminding Welles’ fans of what amazing things he accomplished, and what a tantalizing lot he left undone.
— Jonathan Richards
Orson Welles directs his recently unearthed comedy from 1938,