Peter Bogdanovich: Is It True What They say about Orson?
Reading Simon Callow's excellent chapters on the making of It's All True in Hello Americans served to remind me just how far Welles scholarship has advanced since one of the very first books on Welles appeared in 1970: Charles Higham's disgracefully researched The Films of Orson Welles. While Callow's work is a balanced, well researched account of the many complex problems that were occurring in Brazil during the chaotic production of It's All True, Higham's work, in stark contrast--and especially in retrospect--is a completely laughable work which has long since been throughly discredited. But it's amazing to think that this piece actually appeared in Sight and Sound and Higham later wrote several pieces about The Other Side of the Wind for The New York Times (see the Sept 2nd Wellesnet entry for Higham's error-ridden piece on OSOTW).
Higham's book caused Welles great pain, and more to the point, the loss of several initial backers for his just launched new film, The Other Side of the Wind. Welles wrote a long letter to Peter Bogdanovich to set the record about It's All True straight, which Bogdanovich did by writing a long article for The New York Times.
Here are both Welles letter to Peter Bogdanovich, and the subsequent article Bogdanovich wrote that appeared in The N.Y. Times on August 30, 1970 -- the same day Welles began shooting in Hollywood on The Other Side of the Wind.
I think you've already met Dick Wilson. If you spend time with him, as I hope you will, you're going to find that he's invaluable. He was not only my right hand during those years but in South America deserves the title of executive producer. You'll find him very fair minded, the very opposite of a yes-man. Trust him. I'll Tell you in a minute why this matters.
I'm coming back to screenland Why? To look for some acting jobs, that's why. And what, you'll ask, has happened to my picture? Well, let's say (as I've had to say so often before all through the years) that there has been a temporary delay due to lack of funds.
I'm writing this to beseech your thoroughness in the matter of research. Certainly, I've nothing to reproach you for in this department, but regarding South America there are new and pressing reasons for the most exhaustive fact finding on your part.
You will be talking to the witnesses in the casebear down on them, get all the testimony you can.
I haven't bough the Higham book (THE FILMS OF ORSON WELLES) but managed to sneak a few pages of free reading in Brentano's (bookstore) the other day. That's as far as I'm going: no use eating up what's left of my liver He thinks I hate to finish my movies because I equate completion with death. I should think he'd realize that not finishing a job is not really to do it at allwhich isn't suicide but murder. If he had his facts straight he'd see who's been guilty of that. I guess that's why he refused to take me up on my offer to check his material for purely factual inaccuracies; it would have robbed him of the source of some pretty ripe theorizing. On the other hand, it might have helped to get me off a hook whichafter 25 years or sois really starting to hurt. As for Dick, there's something stubbornalmost mulishin his regard for the facts. And he has the factsall of themon paper. Its going to be a bore for you, but do please cast a long, cool, non-partisan eye on all that documentation. Get the truth about IT'S ALL TRUE, and then put it down, just as you find it.
The South America episode is the one key disaster in my story, so of course, you'll want to get it straight. For my part, I need to get it straightas a simple matter of survival. This is newly urgent for me, because, once again, the legend that grew up out of that affair has lost me the chance to make a picture.
As I've mentioned, that lovely money out in the middle-west suddenly dried up. Mr. Higham seems to have spooked them. A quote from it in tagging the review in Newsweek sent them scampering. Once again I am the man who "irresponsibly" dropped everything to whoop it up in the carnival in Rio, and, having started a picture down there, capriciously refused to finish it. No use trying to explain that I didn't flit down to South American for the fun of it
I don't know of any more fun than making a movie, and the most fun of all comes in the cutting room when the shooting is over. How can it be thought that I'd deny myself so much of that joy with AMBERSONS? I felt than as I do now that it could have been a far better film than KANE. How can anyone seriously believe that I would jeopardize something I loved so much for the dubious project of shooting a documentary on the carnival in Rio? Jesus, I didn't like carnivals anywayI associated them with fancy dress, which bores me silly, and the touristic banalities of the New Orleans Mardi Gras. You know why I went? I went because it was put to me in the very strongest terms by Jock (John Hay Whitney) and Nelson (Rockefeller) that this would represent a sorely needed contribution to inter-American affairs. This sounds today quite unbelievably silly, but in the first year of our entering the war the defense of this hemisphere seemed crucially important. I was told that the value of this project would lie not in the film itself but in the fact of making it. It was put to me that my contribution as a kind of Ambassador extraordinary would be truly meaningful. Normally, I had doubts about this, but (President) Roosevelt himself helped to persuade me that I really had no choice.
Why else would I have agreed to make a film for no salary at all? Any appetite I may have felt for high-life could have been satisfied with a few flying weekends to New York. By preference I would have heard the chimes at midnight in Billingsley's Club Room and in Dickie Wells up in Harlem. But I was getting all the kicks I needed at the moviola. Dick's file will show you that I only agreed to the Brazilian junket on the firm guarantee that the moviolas and all the film (of THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS) would immediately follow me. What happened instead? The film never came. A takeover in RKO brought in new bosses committed, by the simple logic of their position, to enmity. I quickly lost the last vestiges of control over AMBERSONS, and friends at home collapsed in panic. Who can blame them? Even if I'd stayed I would have had to make compromises on the editing, but these would have been mine and not the fruit of confused and often semi-hysterical committees. If I had been there myself I would have found my own solutions and saved the picture in a form which would have carried the stamp of my own effort.
The point is that the tragedy of South America didn't end with the mangling of AMBERSONS by RKO. No, it cost me a hell of a lot more that the two years I spent making the picture. It cost me many, many other pictures which I never made; and many years in which I couldn't work at all.
For the new men who came to power in RKO it was all too easy to make this giant, this script less documentary in South American look like a crazy waste of money. And to justify their positions, it was very much in their interest to do so. A truly merciless campaign was launched, and by the time I came back to America my image as a capricious and unstable wastrel was permanently fixed in the industry's mind. You know all this, of course, but the documentation may surprise you. The extent of that campaign and its virulence is hard to exaggerate.
When I'd left, the worst that can be said for me was that I was some kind of artist. When I came back I was some kind of lunatic. No story was too wildthe silliest inventions were believed. The friendliest opinion was this: "Sure, he's talented, but you can't trust him. He throws money around like a madman; when he gets bored he walks away. He's irresponsible."
The legend was established, founded on the firm rock of popular conviction. Soon it was so large and life-like people couldn't see the reality which it obscured. Nobody cared about the facts; the fiction was so vastly more amusing.
I have carried that legend on my shoulders for more than a quarter of a century. Just lately, for the first timeand for no very obvious reasonit did seem to have expired finally of old age. Not quite old myself (Welles was 55 when he wrote this), I have been looking forward to as much use as the years will leave me to rather eagerly function as a movie-maker.
Then came that book (Charles Higham's THE FILMS OF ORSON WELLES) The very well-intentioned review of it in Newsweek would seem to be what's cost me the financing for this new picture, THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND. When the money people read that in the world's first news magazine, they can scarcely be reproached for second thoughts in the matter of gambling on a Welles movie.
So now the legend walks again, Peter, and I've no choice but to go back to hustling those cameo jobs in other people's films...
You have on-the-spot witnesses to consult and Dick has the documents. When you get to this chapter I'm hoping that you'll find the hard facts in this matter and will make it honestly possible to do a little job of disinfecting
This time, it's not just that I'd like to have the record straightI'd like to go to work again
All the best,
IS IT TRUE WHAT THEY SAY ABOUT ORSON?
BY PETER BOGDANOVICH
THE NEW YORK TIMES August 30, 1970
A couple of weeks ago, a well-meaning book called The Films of Orson Welles " was published, and a sympathetic review of it appeared in Newsweek. Both authors wrote glowingly of Welles' work they clearly consider him, and rightly so among the great American filmmakersyet as a direct result of the two, a would-be backer's interest in a Welles movie project cooled, and then disappeared. Another, whom he's been wooing for several months, became increasingly reluctant.
Because, in his book, Charles Higham has not only expressed his high opinions, his criticism, and interesting interpretations of the films, but has also attempted to reveal the "true" story behind the making of them, and in so doing has gathered together, I am sure unintentionally, a collection of half-truths, misrepresentations, mythical anecdotes, factual lapses, and conclusions based on false Information that add up to an illustrated textbook on how to criminally impair an artist's career.
Since Higham never interviewed Welles and declined the directors offer to check the manuscript, all his material is gathered from news stories, press releases and the faulty memories of some actors and techniciansthe kind of testimony that in court is characterized as hearsay. (Higham has never made a film or he would surely realize that the last people ever to know what is happening on a picture are actors or technician.) It would require a book in itself to put right all the errors in the text: When his chapter on Welles aborted 1942 documentary, "It's Alt True," appeared in London's Sight & Sound a few weeks ago, its misinformation so distressed director Richard Wilson, a former Welles associate who was at the heart of that ill-fated adventure, that he wrote an 8,000-word piece which will run in the magazine's next issue; Wilson says he has barely scratched the surface in correcting that one chapter.
I have seen the financing on several movies fall through because of the myths Welles carries around with him almost as tangibly as the stone that occupied Sisyphus. Particularly the myth of the "self-destructive genius," as Newsweek put it, who "with typical Impetuosity... abandoned two films already in progress and flew down to Rio to start shooting the carnival (for "Its All True"). The irony of that statement is sad beyond words for anyone who knows the true story: World War II had broken out and Nelson Rockefeller, then head at the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs, convinced RKO that a documentary about Rio and its famous carnival (which was beginning in a few weeks) would be an invaluable help in solidifying the unity of the Americas; the studio would share the cost with the government. He then persuaded Welles to direct the projectat no salary. Though publicity releases of the time are filled with propagandistic good cheer and high hopes, Welles private correspondence and his own accounts are quite the opposite; he did not want to go to Rio, had little real interest in the carnival (until after he got down there), and only agreed to do the film because he felt it was a duty he couldn't refuse.
Far from "abandoning'' "The Magnificent Ambersons" (shooting had just completed), Welles made it a condition that his cutter join him in South Americabut RKO never lived up to that agreement. One bad preview of "Ambersons" in Pomona (the audience had come to see a Dorothy Lamour musical) convinced the studio they had a disaster on their hands, and they decided to ignore Welles and perform their own surgery. (Welles once said to me, "Imagine what would have happened if 'Citizen Kane' had ever been previewed"). And there was Welles, unable to return from Rio, desperately trying by long-distance phone calls, impassioned multi-page cables and reasoned, detailed letters to save his film, giving in on some beloved scenes in order to save othersultimately losing everything. It is a correspondence deeply painful to read. As recently as four years ago, Welles had a plan to re-shoot the particularly butchered ending of the film in a "twenty-years later" sequence with those actors who were still alive, and so to finally restore one of hit favorite projects to its proper form. But the financier who was to buy the rights lost Interestno doubt having heard another Welleslan "legend."
And this is the same director who Higham says, "hated to see a film finished... all his blame of others for wrecking his work is an unconscious alibi for hit own genuine fear of completion. Even if the author were a qualified psychiatrist, this no doubt innocent, but nonetheless damning assertion would probably be thrown out of court, but apparently almost everything in print is blithely accepted as factNewsweek quoted this same passage, totally convinced. Was it a 'fear of completion" then that made Welles try for over seven years to persuade RKO to allow him to cut the "It's All True" footage (an internal power-struggle at the studio had resulted in stoppage of the film), even attempting several times to make it part of his deal on other pictures (as an actor) that the material be made available to him? Toward that end, he wrote three or four different screenplays around the scenes he had shot. A year ago, when some of the film turned up at Paramount, he devised yet another scheme to salvage it as a TV show, but, as before, no one was interested. When Universal forbade his working on the final cut of "Touch of Evil," was it a "fear of completion" that caused an impassioned correspondence with the studio head and with the film's star, Charlton Heston, trying forcefully to win points, and culminating in a meticulously detailed 58-page memo reasonably, carefully explaining, justifying and elaborating every argument he had toward restoring the picture to his version?
Perhaps it was a fear of completion that propelled him over a period of three years, as he ranged across Europe acting in other peoples films so he could finance his own movie of Othello shooting until the money ran out, running off to act again, then getting his cast together for a few more sequences. (The legend that this incredible tenacity spawned, and which Higham unwittingly encourages in his book is: Look at thateven when its his own production it takes him three years to make a picture.)
In fact, the absurdity of allegations about Welles profligacy would be comic if their effect werent so harmful to his career. While David Lean goes several months over schedule making "Ryan's Daughter," and Blake Edwards a few million over budget on "Darling Lili," Orson Welles films a huge Shakespearian production of "Chimes at Midnight" for barely a million dollars, ("Citizen Kane," which many have called "the greatest sound film ever made," cost a meager $850,000.)
The truth is that Welles is a spectacularly economical, resourceful directorhis latest film, "The Deep" (soon to tie released), was shot in several quick weeks with his own money and a crew of six. When the costumes for a sequence in "Othello" didn't arrive, Welles, undaunted, shot anywayswitching the scene to a Turkish bath so the actors only had to wear towels. When, Just before he was starting "The Trial," the producers told him they couldn't get the money to pay for sets, he found a deserted Paris train station and, over a weekend, converted it into what he needed. The "legend" that he went way over budget on "The Lady From Shanghai" is refuted by the Columbia production reports that clearly show most of the trouble was caused by star Rita Hayworth's illness, which twice closed down the picture. And does no one remember that it was Orson Welles who shot his film of Macbeth" on a. B-western budget in 21 days (plus two for trick shots)?
I am afraid that in his guileless enthusiasm Higham was simply too willing to tike second-hand testimony on face value. He offers us his "conclusions," for example, on who directed which scenes in "Ambersons" but RKO's dally production reports and Welles' Mercury company correspondence disprove his theories on almost every count. He states that Welles "abandoned" "Macbeth" in the editing stage, when actually his cutter worked with him for months in Italy. There are scores of unequivocal declarations by Higham of Welles intent and sources of inspirationsurely matters that would have had to be confirmed by the director himself.
Sometimes Higham's lack of information leads him into some embarrassing criticisms: he complains about Welles' habit of dubbing his own voice over other actors' voices, then highly praises Mlscha Auer In "Mr. Arkadln," and the painter in "The Trial"both of whom were dubbed by Welles. Of Touch of Evil," Hlgham says, "Welles never saw a finished cut or even a rough cut; he obviously could not bear to do so." In fact, Welles not only presented Universal with a final cut but, when they rejected it, twice saw their version so he could offer his comments. The correspondence I've seen between Welles and the studio is a clear record of this.
One incident, which does not reflect on Welles, is. however significant in terms of Higham's gullibility. He writes that a South American folk hero, playing himself in "It's All True," was drowned after falling from his raft while straining to see "an octopus and a shark" which had "suddenly burst out of the water, locked in a death struggle. In whose imagination this bit of fantasy was born I don't know (and unfortunately Higham supplies no footnotes in many such crucial places), but Richard Wilson was there when the actual drowning occurred (Welles was not) and neither his daily written reports at the time nor his memory recalls anything remotely resembling this "extraordinary" happening. It was actually just a tragically simple accident, but the octopus-shark fable is evidently much more in the style that Higham and others like to associate with Welles: Newsweek swallowed it whole.
It reminds me of the time, recently, when one of Welles' oldest friends told him an amusing favorite anecdote illustrating his supposed madness as a director. When he was done, Welles said, "But that's not true." The man answered, "I know it, Orson, but it's so marvelouspeople love to hear it." Welles looked at his friend of 30 years, "Don't you realize," he said, "it's stories like that which make it difficult for me to live?"
Higham also makes an error in thinking his fondness for Welles is a private affair: "The audience has forsaken him as a creative artist, knowing him chiefly as an actor... in endless now happily forgotten films." Not exactly a remark that would encourage a producer to hire or back Orson Welles. But if it is true, whom does Higham's publisher think will buy their high-priced book? (Not to mention the four others on Welles soon to be published in this country, or the nine already available in France, Germany, England and Yugoslavia.) And why did Look ask Welles to write the lead piece for its forthcoming cinema issue? What about the complete retrospective of his work that opened the American Film Institute's theater in Washington last June, or the similar ones commercial theaters in Los Angeles and New York have run very successfully in the last two years? What about the art theater named after him in Cambridge, Mass.?
Too esoteric? Well, then, how about the regularity with which his Touch of Evil," "The Magnificent Ambersons," "Citizen Kane," "Mr. Arkadin," "The Lady from Shanghai," as well as films he only starred in, are run on TV and revived In theaters? And what are we to think of the packed audience of predominantly young people seeing the first preview of "Catch-22" in Boston: Mike Nichols told me that when Welles' name appeared in the credits, spontaneous applause swept the huge theater (which happened for no one else in the film) and that Welles entrance and exit received similar reactions.
Still too rarefied an atmosphere? Then let me report that Welles' first appearance on Dick Cavett's TV show in May received a higher rating than any other program in the series, so much so that Welles was invited back for an unprecedented two 90-minute solo interviews. And this after he had already been a tremendously successful 90-minute guest on the David Frost show (which invited him back as host for a week).
Some people maintain that Welles' movie career has not lived up to the high promise of "Citizen Kane." They are wrong. "Chimes at Midnight," "Touch of Evil," "Othello," "Ambersons" (even truncated) are in every way more personal and profound visions of that unique world he creates on the screen; "Lady from Shanghai, "Macbeth," "Mr., Arkadin," "The Immortal Story"each in its way is filled with poetry and imagination, and the resonance of a major artist.
And this despite the fact that "Kane" was the first and last time he was given autonomy in every phase of productionan unprecedented contract in 1941; today, of course, any number of directorssome totally unpreparedare given the same liberty. But Welles is not. RKO's 19421943 campaign to discredit himthe new studio regime using Welles as the scapegoat to disassociate Itself from the oldhas had long-lasting effects, fired over the years by the kind of rumors, gossip, lies and exaggerations that Higham's book innocently promotes. Such circumstances, as insidious as a blacklist, are the primary reason Welles' list of films is not three times as long (after RKO, for example, he couldn't get a job as director for four yean). The loss of confidence caused by the HlghamNewsweek combination is only the latest example in an almost 30-year pattern.
Isn't it really time the pattern was broken? Higham lists Welles "Don Quixote," an entirely self-financed project of I5-years duration, among his "Unfinished Films." Since this is not a posthumous study, however, wouldn't "work-in-progress" be more appropriate? A minor point, but significant: Orson Welles is a living artista career in progressdependent, as anyone else, on the goodwill and resources of others for his livelihood, for his survival. He has at least 30 movies in him to make. Isn't it really time he was allowed to function again with the same freedom he had, and most certainly justified, 30 long years ago? His admirers would best be occupied creating a climate in which that can happen instead of dredging up destructive misrepresentations of the past.