He gave Hollywood Citizen Kane and got nothing back, say Alex Gambotto-Burke.
It’s a tragedy that to today’s stovepipes, Orson Welles is probably best remembered for frozen peas. They know him for being the terse, disdainful old man struggling to read through a radio advertisement about Findus’ aforementioned legumes. When the flustered director requests that Welles emphasise the “in” in “in July”, they know him for barking back in that unforgettable baritone, “There’s no known way of saying an English sentence in which you begin a sentence with ‘in’ and emphasise it. Get me a jury and show me how you can say ‘In July’, and I’ll go down on you!”
It’s a hilarious but humiliating portrait of a man who was mocked and blacklisted by the film industry he almost single-handedly revolutionised. It casts him as a man of compromise— willing to forego the glamour and artistry of his earlier career to make some quick dosh — when Welles was anything but.
Born in Wisconsin in 1915, Welles’ ambition emerged in adolescence. A consummate stage performer from the age of 16— where he claimed he scored his first critically acclaimed role in Ireland by pretending he was a famous Broadway star — Welles moved into radio, where his 1938 production of HG Wells’ War of the Worlds caused national panic. Styled after genuine news reports, Welles’ reading of the source material was so beautifully done he convinced many American listeners that the Martians really had landed.
It was in cinema, though, that Welles became a true giant. He signed an unprecedented deal with RKO Pictures which granted him complete creative control over his films. After the studio rejected Welles’ first two suggestions, they settled on a critical portrayal of newspaper impresario William Randolph Hearst, then titled American. American became Citizen Kane (1941), commonly regarded as the greatest film of all time. Welles produced, directed, and co-wrote the film, and starred as the Hearstesque Charles Foster Kane, an acting role he was never able to match. Kane’s greatest achievement, though, was in the then-underdeveloped field of cinematography. While French and German expressionistic film had set an arty precedent, in America movies remained largely inspired by theatre. The vast majority of them were filmed from the stage audience’s perspective. With Kane, Welles utilised then-unknown techniques such as deep focus, time compression, and sweeping and low-angle shots to express plot elements that would have otherwise required detailed exposition. Despite Hearst’s banning of all Kane coverage in his newspapers and radio stations, the film was a critical, if not commercial, success. It remained neglected in Hollywood until the ’50s, and in yet another Academy Awards snafu, Welles only won a Best Writing Oscar after being nominated for almost every other category.
The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) and It’s All True, Welles’ next two pictures, respectively flopped and went over budget, and Welles was cast out by RKO, who adopted the company slogan “Showmanship in place of Genius” for a year to belittle their former golden boy. Welles started taking on freelance work, and in 1943, he married screen goddess Rita Hayworth. They filed for divorce five years later, Hayworth commenting that she “couldn’t take his genius anymore.” Welles moved to Europe, not returning to Hollywood until 1956.
As with many Hollywood figures of the time, Welles was a noted left-winger, which led him to being accused of Communist sympathies and placed on the Red Channels blacklist. Tarred with the McCarthyist brush and regarded as a quixotic visionary, Welles was unable to ever recapture his former greatness. Eartha Kitt, actress and peerless seductress when Welles gave her first starring role in a stage production of Dr. Faustus— and with whom Welles reportedly had a brief fling — described his frustrations thus: “In the eyes of Hollywood he never achieved Citizen Kane again, but Ironically Hollywood wouldn’t let him achieve another great success like Kane.”
And what of those frozen peas? Well, in a way, it was his own two-fingered salute to the industry that spurned him — he was forced into self-financing his own projects, after all. When the Academy realised its mistake in 1971 and offered Welles an honorary award for “superlative artistry”, he pretended he was out of town. Choosing between forgiving the Academy and advertising peas, in the end, becoming a Findus shill seemed like the more dignified option.