Today is the birthday of Orson Welles, who would be 95 if he were still alive. By the time I was aware of him, Orson Welles had already become an eccentric parody of himself, someone who was famous for reasons the new generation didn't quite remember — but this was a man who, by the time he was 25, had played Tybalt on Broadway, created a major acting company, incited nationwide hysteria with his "War of the Worlds" broadcast, and made Citizen Kane. He was still only 43 when he made Touch of Evil. By the time he made those Paul Masson wine commercials in the late 1970s ("We will sell no wine before its time"), he was 20 years past his best work.
Not that he stopped working. A look at his IMDb filmography is even a little startling, especially the news that his voice will narrate a 3-D film coming out later this year. Film snobs might be horrified, but Orson Welles would have loved the possibilities of 3-D; the old magician would have found something cool to do with it, something surprising and tricksy and expensive.
His brilliance and his restlessness sometimes made it look to the rest of the world as if he weren't serious, or lacked focus or staying power. Certain things seemed to come easier to him than to his contemporaries, so it looked to them as if he weren't working as hard — but he did more between 1940 and 1958 than most actors and directors can imagine doing in their lifetimes.
1. "The Mercury Theatre on the Air," 1938. Orson Welles' first big commercial success came in radio, as the voice of Lamont Cranston, "The Shadow," in 1937-38, and as a director of an early radio adaptation of Les Miserables. "The War of the Worlds" broadcast was only one episode of this radio series, which ran weekly from July to December 1938. The program featured radio adaptations of classic stories, beginning with Dracula and ending with Thornton Wilder's The Bridge of San Luis Rey. "Dracula" is pretty easy to find online, and I've heard "The Bridge of San Luis Rey" (don't listen while you're driving; you'll be blinded by tears), but would like to hear the entire series at some point.
2. Citizen Kane, 1941. Sometime in the last decade or so it became fashionable to suggest that Citizen Kane might be overrated. I'm sorry, that's just ignorant. Citizen Kane was among the first movies that used the medium to create a new form of storytelling. The shifting points of view alone were a brilliant advance that we now take for granted. Citizen Kane is a story that could only be a movie; it's not a play adapted to the screen, it couldn't be a novel, it's not a radio play. It's a whole world in 119 minutes, and it's gorgeous and funny and sad and still really entertaining, 70 years on. If you've never seen it on a big screen, you've missed something.
3. The Lady from Shanghai, 1947. I almost feel I have to apologize for this movie, because it's nearly wrecked by Orson Welles' decision not only to cast himself as the male lead but then to play that role with an "Irish" accent that sounds like nothing on God's green earth. (Welles' earliest professional theater experience was actually at the Gate in Dublin, as a teenager. It's weird that he couldn't pick up the accent, but seriously: you tell me if he sounds like anyone you've ever heard.) Anyway, The Lady from Shanghai succeeds despite Welles' performance, being a film of shadows and angles and reversals. Welles' insistence that Rita Hayworth bleach her hair, controversial and eccentric at the time, turns out to have been inspired. She never looked more beautiful, and she never looked less like "Rita Hayworth," the movie star. What makes this movie for me, though, is Everett Sloane's performance as her wealthy husband, Arthur Bannister; the way he calls his wife "lover" makes my skin crawl even now.
4. Touch of Evil, 1958. This film was famously recut by the studio, and Welles' intended version wasn't seen until 1998. I would need to attend a seminar to understand how and why the 1998 version is better than the 1958 version. The earlier version might not have been precisely what Welles wanted, but it's still a great film, and in some ways easier to watch than the re-cut (I know, I know; that's not the point, except sometimes it is). It's cool to go to Venice (CA) and see the buildings Welles filmed, immediately recognizable. But Welles' performance as corrupt police captain Hank Quinlan is what makes this film for me. He's such a terrifying wreck of the boy he was in Citizen Kane, the scene where Marlene Dietrich tells his fortune ("You haven't got any") is chilling.
5. The Muppet Movie, 1979. No, seriously; this was my first real exposure to Orson Welles. He played Lew Lord, the Hollywood producer who (spoiler!) gives the Muppets their big break, in a hilarious cameo that seemed to bring Welles' entire career full circle. Once upon a time Welles had been Kermit, a frog with a dream. It seems totally appropriate that this was one of his last screen appearances. I love that he agreed to do this.