The Death of Orson Welles

Orson Welles
May 6, 1915 – October 10, 1985
“We’re born alone, we live alone, we die alone. Only through our loveand friendship can we create the illusion for the moment that we’re not alone.”

by Chris Dandeneau

Bit of background:  George Orson Welles was born May 6,1915 in Kenosha, Wisconsin, to Beatrice Ives Welles (suffragist, communityactivist, and accomplished pianist) and Richard Head Welles (inventor andbusinessman). His birthplace at 6116 Seventh Avenue (in 1915 it was 463 ParkAvenue), is now part of Kenosha’s Library Park Historic District. Welles was thesecond of his parents’ two children, the oldest being Richard Ives Welles Jr.(b. 1905). Richard Jr. was a huge disappointment to his father, and was latercommitted to the Kankakee Institute in Wisconsin. In her biography on OrsonWelles, Barbara Leaming wrote about an instance when a corpse reported to beRichard Jr. (it wasn’t) washed up on the banks of the Mississippi River.According to Leaming, Orson remembered his father saying, “That’s good, atleast the family is rid of him!” Orson’s father was an alcoholic and awomanizer, so his marriage seemed doomed from the start. Orson’s parentsseparated when he was 6. In 1924, Orson’s mother – thought by many to be theartistic influence in his life – died of jaundice. Six years later, Orson’sfather died of heart and kidney failure. Orson received most of his father’sestate, with only a small portion going to Richard Jr. In 1937, Wellesco-founded the Mercury Theatre, which performed at the Comedy at 108 West 41stSt. in New York (the Comedy was demolished in 1970). Welles expanded the Mercuryoperation in July of 1938, to include weekly radio dramas for CBS. Known as MercuryTheatre on the Air, it garnered infamy with its October 30, 1938broadcast of The War of the Worlds. (Not to be confused with the psychoticmeltdown we’ve been privy to recently) This clever adaptation of the H.G.Wells’ classic caused panic for thousands of listeners, who thought an actualinvasion from Mars was taking place. The chaos created by the broadcast helpedWelles gain international fame. In 1939, Welles signed with RKORadio Pictures, Inc., at the time one of Hollywood’s “Big Five”film studios. 

After a few failed attempts to make a film (one of which was based on JosephConrad’s Heart of Darkness – later the basis for ApocalypseNow), Welles struck gold with Citizen Kane. While the filmwas not commercially successful at the time of its release, it is now consideredby many critics to be the best motion picture ever made. At its most simplistic,Citizen Kane tells the story of the rise and subsequent fall of arags-to-riches child. The film was controversial even before its release, becauseit appeared to be a fictional account of the powerful real-life newspaperpublisher, William Randolph Hearst. Spurred on by Hollywood gossip witches, HeddaHopper and Louella Parsons, Hearst tried to keep the film from ever seeing thelight of day. One story by Welles claims that he was tipped off by police thatHearst had planted an underage girl and two photographers in his hotel room, inan attempt to have leverage for blackmail.  A terrific film based on thisstory is called RKO 281.

Regardless, the commercial failure ofCitizen Kane was seen by many as a direct result of boycotts andthreats made by Hearst. The irony of the Hearst-Kane fiasco is that while Hearsttried vehemently to keep the population from seeing the film, many people onlyrecognize the name William Randolph Hearst in association with CitizenKane. The film was successful with critics at its time of release,receiving nine Oscar nominations (it was booed during the ceremony) and winningone, for Best Original Screenplay.  That particular Oscar statuette wasauctioned off in 1999.

Welles’ follow-up to Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons(1942), would foreshadow some of the problems that Welles would face in hiscareer as a filmmaker. During production of Ambersons,Welles was asked by the U.S. government to shoot a documentary about SouthAmerica. While working on that project (titled It’s All True) inBrazil, RKO took control of Ambersonsand proceeded to do some heavy editing. It’s All True became oneof Welles’ many endeavors throughout his career that would remain unfinished.Welles developed a reputation in Hollywood as a fiscally irresponsible director,who had trouble keeping to schedule. Throughout his life’s work, he would beplagued with problems of film financing and studio interference.

In the late 1940s, Welles moved to Europe. It was here thefilmmaker, effectively exiled from Hollywood, would produce much of his laterwork. The creative and filmmaking independence Welles insisted upon, ultimatelyled to reduced budgets. Some of the films made by him in Europe include Othello(1952 Palm d’Or winner) and The Trial (1963). In 1971, Wellesreceived an honorary Academy Award. He was now being praised by the sameHollywood that had previously shunned him.

 Welles was frequently overweight, but became obese later in life. For the last decade or so of his life, he was reduced todoing commercials and made regular appearances on the talk-show circuit, oftendrunk.