Talent, girth, ego, ambition – everything about Orson Welles swelled beyond the boundaries of normal men. His talent as an actor, writer, director, and producer soared above the worlds of stage, radio, film, and television. But, as high as his skill took him, his outsized personality and uncompromising artistic stance weighted down his actual accomplishments. And while the first film bearing his complete authorial stamp, Citizen Kane (1941), ensures that Welles will always have a place at the forefront of film history, the rest of his wildly uneven career sags under the yoke of his enormous, if unfulfilled, potential.
Ironically, this most sophisticated of artists started his life on the simple plains of the American Midwest. George Orson Welles was born on May 6, 1915, in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Welles’s parents, however, had high hopes for their son. After a local doctor determined that young Orson was a prodigy at the age of eighteen months, his mother dedicated her life to helping him realize his potential. At the age that most children are learning how to tie their shoelaces, Welles was painting, playing violin, performing magic tricks, and acting in local theater productions. After his mother died when he was six, Welles traveled around the world with his father, a flamboyant inventor. After returning to the U.S. to attend private school for a few years, Welles moved to Europe to become a stage actor. After starring in many plays abroad, he returned to the U.S. and conquered Broadway, winning raves as Tybalt in “Romeo and Juliet.”
By the age of twenty, Welles was a star on stage. Next he conquered radio, becoming the voice of “The Shadow” and co-founding the famous Mercury Theater of the Air. The group’s radio dramatization of H. G. Wells’s “War of the Worlds” on October 30, 1938, set off a national panic that martians were actually invading New Jersey. Hollywood recognized his talent and he and his company of actors (including Joseph Cotten and Agnes Moorehead) soon found themselves in Los Angeles, courtesy of the R.K.O. studio. Citizen Kane, the group’s first production, became one of the most influential films of all time, both for its artistic merit (use of flashback, deep-focus photography, and unusual camera angles) as for its eerie prescience: for, like Charles Foster Kane, the character he played, George Orson Welles’s life and career would soar and sink at dizzying intervals that would completely crush a lesser man and artist.
Welles knew, of course, that he could never follow up the success of Citizen Kane. But that didn’t stop him from trying. The Magnificent Ambersons (1943), Lady from Shanghai (1952), Macbeth (1952), Touch of Evil (1959), and Chimes at Midnight (1968), are all either noble failures or visionary masterpieces depending upon which critic you read. And while he had trouble finding financing for his own pictures after Kane, Welles acted in other directors’ projects to pay the bills, most notably in Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949). Welles was married three times, including a five-year hitch to Rita Hayworth. He indulged a passion for food, alcohol, and cigars his entire life, a life which ended with him grossly overweight and dead of a heart attack at the age of seventy. But the films live on, especially Citizen Kane, which several film industry polls have voted the greatest film of all-time.