The title of Joseph McBride’s new book What Ever Happened to Orson Welles? is an ironic reference to the question most commonly asked by those who buy into the shallow legend about Welles: that he was a boy wonder who made the greatest film ever made and then collapsed under the weight of his own self-indulgence. Despite the best efforts of Welles partisans like Peter Bogdanovich, Jonathan Rosenbaum, and Clinton Heylin, this view of Welles persists even among cinephiles who should know better. As Rosenbaum has pointed out, part of the problem is the tendency to view Welles as a studio filmmaker, when in fact he was more of a Cassavetes-style independent. Measured against standards of popular success (such as The Sound of Music or The Towering Inferno), Welles’ later films might indeed be considered failures, but as audacious experiments, pictures like Chimes at Midnight and F for Fake remain groundbreaking works.
In this brilliant book, McBride systematically shatters the myths about Welles. The author combines a personal perspective (he worked as an actor for Welles) with disciplined scholarly research to create a study that is essential reading for anyone who takes cinema seriously. The book serves as a desperately needed corrective to David Thomson’s reprehensible (and inexplicably well regarded) biography Rosebud, a widely read tome in which Thomson argued that Welles’ later work was more or less worthless — a conclusion the critic arrived at without actually watching some of the works he was criticizing.
McBride not only provides a thoughtful thematic analysis of Welles’ post-Kane films, but dissects the reasons why Welles fell out of public favor — reasons that have little to do with entertainment or art and everything to do with politics and money. McBride points out that the main reason Welles’ later work remains relatively unknown is that it was made outside of the studio system, and therefore outside the massive media apparatus that supports that system. Welles’ independence wasn’t entirely a matter of choice — his career in Hollywood was destroyed by rumors that he couldn’t stay on budget or on schedule, when in fact he was not excessive on either count. Welles was also a victim of the blacklist due to his progressive politics. Ironically, the film that his enemies used against him to destroy his career — the documentary It’s All True — was an assignment he took only out of patriotism and his loyalty to the U.S. government.
Some of these points have been made elsewhere, particularly in essays by Chicago Reader critic Jonathan Rosenbaum. Yet the arguments are more detailed here, thanks to McBride’s unearthing of FBI files, RKO correspondence and other pertinent documents. These pieces of evidence conclusively prove that Welles was smeared for political and financial purposes, and that the reputation that defined him for most of his career —that of an irresponsible, profligate spender who was unable to finish a project — was a lie sold to the public by men who were threatened by Welles’ liberal politics and filmmaking innovations.
McBride skillfully delineates not only the connection between Welles’ politics and his career, but between those politics and his films. The analyses of Othello, Touch of Evil and The Trial are insightful explorations of Welles’ tendency to treat the issues of his life and times in an allegorical fashion. McBride addresses what he considers to be the flaws of the films — such as Welles’ stiff acting in Othello — but overall makes a convincing case for the director as a filmmaker of profound intellect and emotional depth. He makes an equally convincing case against the studio executives, columnists, and government bureaucrats who destroyed Welles’ studio career.
In addition to placing the blame for Welles’ problems where it belongs, McBride celebrates the collaborators who allowed the director to flourish. The hero of the book is cinematographer Gary Graver, who met Welles in 1970 and worked with him until his death in 1985. A tireless worker and an immensely gifted cameraman, Graver placed his technical expertise and economic resourcefulness at Welles’ disposal, which allowed the director to continue working almost non-stop on a series of independent productions. Just as Welles financed his idiosyncratic features by acting in other directors’ work, Graver made a living shooting and directing exploitation films so he could work with Welles for free. Graver did this for one simple reason: as a Welles fan, he wanted to see more Welles movies, and he was willing to do whatever it took to make this happen.
McBride provides a wealth of information about the duo’s partnership and working methods, and includes some hilarious stories — such as the stunning revelation that Welles actually edited a sequence in a hardcore porno movie so Graver could finish it and get back to work on a Welles picture. Graver’s devotion to Welles was so unwavering that it cost him his first two marriages and forced him to put his own directing career on the back burner. The magnitude of Graver’s gift not only to Welles but to film history cannot be overemphasized, and McBride rightly gives credit where it’s due.
One of the biggest myths about Welles is that he somehow became lazy and indulgent in his later years — that instead of making films, he simply shot wine commercials and ate himself to death. In fact, Welles had a work ethic that would put most filmmakers to shame; McBride helpfully catalogues dozens of films and television programs that Welles produced with Graver, many of which were never shown due to the vagaries of the marketplace. Welles rarely had distribution in place for these productions, but made them simply because he loved filmmaking — the process was as important to him as the end result.
Strangely, in our fervently capitalistic society, Welles’ dedication to his art has largely been viewed as a measure of his failure, and his method of financing work by performing in commercials made him the butt of jokes in his later years. When Welles died, obituaries focused on his wine commercials, not on the groundbreaking film and video work those commercials subsidized. In the second half of his book, McBride correctly shifts the focus from Welles’ assignments for Paul Masson to his stunning cinematic output from 1970 on.
The book’s best chapters describe the making of The Other Side of the Wind, a Hollywood satire in which McBride acted, playing an inquisitive film critic not far from his own persona. McBride contextualizes the making of the picture in the new Hollywood of the 1970s — a Hollywood in which Welles fans like Scorsese, Spielberg, and Coppola implemented the master’s techniques to great acclaim, while Welles himself struggled to find work. McBride provides the most detailed production history of The Other Side of the Wind ever published, following the film from its inception to the current efforts to free it from legal and financial entanglements so that it can be seen.
McBride’s arguments in Welles’ favor are given credence by his willingness to acknowledge the director’s weaknesses. On a personal level, the author acknowledges that Welles was extremely difficult to work with at times and didn’t encourage spirited disagreement; the author was also shocked by Welles’ limited, shallow assessments of other directors’ work. McBride also admits that The Other Side of the Wind is an uneven work — an essential film that needs to be seen, but not a masterpiece on a par with Citizen Kane or Touch of Evil, as Bogdanovich and others have implied.
What emerges by the book’s conclusion is the most fully realized English-language account of Welles’ life and career published thus far. Perhaps the best compliment one can pay What Ever Happened to Orson Welles? is that it is as complex in thought and varied in tone as any of Welles’ films. McBride’s combination of personal reflection and scholarly analysis makes the book rigorous and affectionate, academic and deeply moving, infuriating and celebratory. Like the author’s excellent volumes on John Ford, Frank Capra, and Steven Spielberg, it is a book against which all future writings on the subject will be measured.