Orson Welles: a true misunderstood genius

It´s really fascinating the infinite variety of people who have gone through the History of the Seventh Art, especially if we consider the young which it is (the cinematographer was invented in 1895, and the first sound film dates from 1927!) Indeed, any kind of viewer (including the most ignorants) has at least a film that sparks his/her passions (joy excitement and enthusiasm for life, melancholy, tenderness, even fear…), or a star (nowadays everyone is acclaimed as a ‘star’) to admire and, why not, emulate, frequently without perceiving it. Marilyn and her sensual innocence, Hitchcock and his beloved (and phlegmatic) arrogance, Marcello Mastroianni and his Latin chivalry, Bette Davis and the sincerity fall-who-fall, Laurence Olivier and how to have a colossal ego without(?) being hateful…. all of them admired, envied and loved by millions of people from all over the world over many years of talent and magic: the magic of the cinema. The one of whom I have decided to write about is difficult to classify; however, nobody could deny that he is one of the greatest talents ever seen in the big screen: mr. Orson Welles. It is not easy to admire an egocentric man, not to mention if in addition he is also conceited, and if he have a volcanic and changing character, but, the talent shown in so many films makes impossible not to be thankful to and love him. If you want to know more details of the character, life and work of Orson Welles, you should consult a really good blog about him:  the biography by the blog Exordio, which has an appropiate one about him, in spite of being a blog focused in the Second World War; however, the best online source about the life of Welles is his biography by the American National Biography blog: their biographies of any relevant American historic character are undoubtedly the best ones on the Internet. But I cannot speak about the biography of Orson Welles without mentioning the very precise and complete one by Barbara Leaming, which also has details of the genius revealed by the own Welles, making it to be by far the best work published to date on it.

George Orson Welles was born in 1915 in Kenosha, Wisconsin. His father, an inventor and entrepreneur, was also an incorrigible alcoholic and his mother a gifted pianist with whom Orson was very close to. The child Orson soon showed his early intelligence; however, who finally realized that it was a really prodigy child was his tutor, Maurice Bernstein, who made his charge of the education of Orson, focusing on his artistic concerns, including a trip to Ireland to learn about paint.

Once returned from Ireland, he founded in New York City Federal Theatre project with John Houseman, which caused a sensation. As we can read in his biography by the ANB Center:

Welles soon had the Mercury Theatre on the air, experimenting with the possibilities of the radio drama.His best-known Mercury radio play was an updated version of H. G. Wells’ science fiction tale, The War of the Worlds, broadcast the 30th of October 1938: simulating news coverage of a Martian invasion of the United States, the production created panic along the eastern seaboard. The broadcast received widespread publicity and won Welles a contract with RKO Radio Pictures. In July 1939 he went to Hollywood to begin his career in films,

Charles L. P. Silet “Welles, Orson” (Febr, 2000)- American National Biography Online Retrieved February 06, 2014 from http://www.anb.org/articles/18/18-01233.html

Making films was going to be his main occupation for the rest of his life (however now we know that in 1938 he had already directed a film, Too much Johnson, missing and recovered in 2013). In Hollywood, he soon started being unfaithful to his wife, Virginia Nicholson, with the Mexican star Dolores del Río (as Welles himself told in the mentioned book by Leaming). He finally divorced Nicholson on 1940.

After some false starts, he settled on an idea developed with Houseman and veteran scriptwriter Herman Mankiewicz, loosely based on the life of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951). The film, released on 1 May 1941, fared only moderately well at the box office. However, Citizen Kane was directed with such stylistic verve and with such innovative use of cinematography, sound, and music and within such a daring narrative structure that it became one of the most celebrated films ever made

Charles L. P. Silet “Welles, Orson” (Febr, 2000)- American National Biography Online retrieved February 06, 2014 from http://www.anb.org/articles/18/18-01233.html

Furthermore, in the words of the legendary film critic Roger Ebert (1942-2013), “Citizen Kane is undoubtedly the best movie ever”.

Welles’ next project was an expensive and ambitious film based on a bestseller by Booth Tarkington’s, The Magnificent Ambersons, but the directors of the study removed the film of his hands, changing it to avoid a new failure of box office. This was the beginning of his constant struggle with the Hollywood studios: they usually did not understand the plot and the structure of his films, and decided to modify the script, which greatly angered Welles: in fact, he considered himself a misunderstood genius: “they did never understand my talent”. By these dates, in September 1943 he married Hollywood star Rita Hayworth; they had one child, Rebeca, and were divorced in 1947 (because of the same reason that the the last time).

During the post-war years, Welles’ career took a frenetic pace:  appearing in the radio and in films too (and directing some new films too), giving conferences, and writing newspaper columns and editorials according to his progressive ideas. In 1946 he began working again as director and protagonist with Hayworth on The Lady from Shanghai, which was released after much studio revision (again) in 1948.

At the end of the 1940s Welles settled in Europe, where at last he was recognized as one of the best film directors of that time. For his next film, Mr. Arkadin, he wrote again his own script, but now without any “studio-revision”. It was made in 1955; however, it could not be released in the United States until seven years later. The same year, 1955, he married Italian actress Paola Mori; they had one child.

Convinced by Charlton Heston, who was the star in the film, together with Marlene Dietrich and Janet Leigh, in 1958 Welles returned to Hollywood to direct the unbeatable suspenseful film Touch of Evil, in which he also played one of the main characters. However his return was far from being definitive: in 1962, back in Europe, he began filming his version of Franz Kafka’s novel The Trial; it was released in 1963.

At the beginning of the 1960’s Welles began working on a long-lasting project on Shakespeare’s Falstaff, using material from the two sets of Henry IV. As a result his great Chimes at Midnight,  at last appeared in 1966. His following film, The Immortal Story, this time was based on an Isak Dinesen tale; it was released in 1968. Although Welles continued preparing  new films, such as Don Quixote, The Deep, and The Other Side of the Wind, he could not released any of them. So, the last years of his career consisted on acting in films and appearing on television. In 1975 it was released his last film, F for Fake,  about art forgeries; it was awarded in the film festivals of New York and San Sebastián.

As usually happens, Welles had to wait for the recognition for the originality and quality of his work to the final years of his life. In 1970 the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gave him a (honorary) Oscar, and five years later  he was given too a Life Achievement Award by the American Film Institute. Irony of fate, he finally died in his hated Hollywood on 10 October 1985. Fulfilling his last will, his ashes are in Ronda, Málaga, as Welles always described the time he spent in Spain “as the happiest of my life”. However, his memory will always shine in the retina of millions of fans dazzled by his incomparable mastery.


Barbara Leaming (1995). Orson Welles: a biography

Charles L. P. Silet Welles, Orson (Febr, 2000). – American National Biography Online, retrieved February 06, 2014 from http://www.anb.org/articles/18/18-01233.html

John Steele (2000-3-18). Orson Welles from the blog Exordio La Segunda Guerra Mundial, retrieved February 06, 2014 http://www.exordio.com/1939-1945/civilis/cine/orsonwelles.html


3 thoughts on “Orson Welles: a true misunderstood genius

  1. Pingback: Bellezas de ayer y siempre. | Bendita creación

  2. As someone who loves Welles, I really value this post and the information you provide. I have a literary blog, so I love in-depth analysis, and you’ve really captured the character of Welles in this post.

    • Thank you very much! I really appreciate your words, especially taking into account that they come from a compatriot of mr. Welles; it is always nice to meet someone also captivated by the magic and the beauty of the Seventh Art.
      Let me tell you that I took a look at your blog and I liked it so much; it is a great work; congratulations for it!

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