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Cristabelle García

Measuring success Welles-style

In commemoration of his 100th birthday, this May 6th, 2015, I want to tell you a little bit about what I think was Orson Welles’ success. Director and leading actor of Citizen Kane (1941), the movie which during four decades was voted the best of all time, Welles had a very particular life up until the moment he passed away. Nevertheless, some people do regard him as an important failure in the movie industry, not only because Kane failed to at least regain its costs, but also because this director could never again get himself even close to making anything that splendid (because, even when it wasn’t a box office hit, Citizen Kane was and remains to be a unique gem). This is the reason why, even when he was always struggling with his finances, I completely disagree with the statement that Welles failed. I believe that declaring such thing is, simply put, the easiest way to confront the perplexity which this man generates in us.

Clearly, in show business, a director who is a pain in the neck for his actors, has greater odds of succeeding than one who is a headache for his producers. For instance, Stanley Kubrick is widely known for having given his cast and crew a very rough time and, however, this did not inhibit him at all when it came to standing out as a distinguished director of the industry. But Orson Welles did get quite restricted by what he himself once called being “unlucky with producers and the money”, while affirming that he always had been “very lucky” with his team, without any kind of disappointment. “I’m not crying about it, but it’s true. But I’ve had the most wonderful good breaks”, he said in The Paris Interview (1960).

On that same conversation, when asked about the one thing he wanted to do, the director confessed: “I would like to do something which would leave, at least, the art form concerned or the profession, better for my having done it». Charles Foster Kane perished whispering the word “Rosebud”, longing for his lost childhood. If Welles uttered something, it definitely wasn’t “Kane”. With this film, he established a precedent without equal in the history of cinema; what happens is, he did so just as he was launching his career. On an artistic level, he set some very high standards; whereas concerning business, he failed to meet the criteria; in both aspects, what sentenced him was the fact that it was all too soon. This isn’t the usual progression of things. But one must recognize, then, that this human being is more than a person, he is a character.

A few hours before leaving this world, Welles had been interviewed on television, and how we love claiming that he spoke almost as if he had known what was about to happen (which is ironic, considering his lifetime enthusiasm for sensationalism). The kind of people we tend to describe as “personalities” are generally defined by unusual lives. But great characters, they are condemned to tragic and ironic experiences, or at least we bestow them with those meanings, to keep them from dying, to take pleasure in the pain they cause us and preserve their life, through our sorrow, in the collective imagination.

In Ed Wood (1994), a movie directed by Tim Burton, Welles (played by Vincent D’Onofrio) appears giving advice to Wood. Here, the screenwriters did a very good job wisely summing up the sentiment behind the tenacity of Citizen Kane’s creator: “Visions are worth fighting for. Why spend your life making someone else’s dreams?”. Welles did not achieve success in the sense in which we are accustomed to recognize achievements, and this is something that many consider unfortunate. Orson Welles is what he was not. But that, precisely, is what he set out to be.

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