Orson Welles AFI Speech – 1975
Orson Welles received the AFI's lifetime achievement award on February 9, 1975, and without a doubt gave the best acceptance speech that any recepient of that august award has ever delivered.
The show was taped for broadcast on CBS and was available on videotape, but since it has long been out of print, here is a complete transcript of Welles speech, along with the introductory remarks made by Charlton Heston and Geroge Stevens, Jr.
Preface by Charlton Heston, Chairman of the American Film Institute:
The basic intention of the American Film Institute's Life Achievement Award was clear from the beginning: to recognize a career in film. As dictated by the Trustees, the primary criteria of the award are specific. The filmmaker chosen must have in some fundamental way advanced the art of film, and his work must be acknowledged alike by the general public, the critical and academic community, and by his professional peers. The careers of the award's first two recipients, John Ford and James Cagney, ideally fulfilled the standards set.
Our choice this year is Orson Welles. He is surely qualified to stand with his predecessors on this dais. In that context, it's interesting to note that he claims he prepared for his first film by "studying the work of the masters: John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford." The film was Citizen Kane. It's fair to say it has become a benchmark in world cinema, an achievement against which other films are still measured.
The first AFI award went to a director, the second to an actor. In Orson Welles, we honor both crafts. His phenomenal talent, unquenchable energies and unflagging enthusiasm have served him equally well on both sides of the camera. Indeed, they have now and then impelled him to function as producer, writer, designer, gaffer and make-up man, though to my knowledge he has never fallen off a horse for pay.
His achievements outside the cinema are memorable, as well. On stage, he's done everything from Shakespeare to sawing women in half. Early in his career he assembled an extraordinarily gifted company of actors, the Mercury Players, and featured them in a memorable series of plays.
At the same time he electrified the Golden Age of radio with the same actors in the Mercury Playhouse. He brought most of them with him to Hollywood, planting a whole patch of flourishing talents in film. Throughout his career, his energies, his talents, and the fields they've reached could be described as protean.
Perhaps one of his most significant contributions to film was his pioneering effort as what we now call an independent fiimmaker. In the Forties, when almost all production was still studio-based. Welles began making films entirely on location as a maverick independent, putting them together with spit, string, and chutzpah, blazing the trail for many filmmakers to follow. Happily, Orson Welles continues to pioneer.
We must mark the work we value while its makers are still with us, and it's also good to mark the work of a man who is still doing it. Orson Welles came to films young enough to be burdened with that uneasiest of labels, a 'Boy Wonder'. He's no longer a boy, but he's still a wonder!
The American Film Institute
THE PROGRAM FOR A GALA SALUTE TO ORSON WELLES
Entrance of The Guest of Honor, Mr. Orson Welles
Welcome by Martin Manulis, Director, AFI West
Charlton Heston, Chairman, The American Film Institute
Frank Sinatra, Host
Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy Ingrid Bergman
Peter Bogdanovich Joseph Cotten
Janet Leigh Anthony Perkins
Dennis Weaver Natalie Wood Music by the Nelson Riddle Orchestra
Music by the Nelson Riddle Orchestra_______________________________
The Award for Life Achievement presented to ORSON WELLES by the Director of The American Film Institute, George Stevens, Jr:
It was thirty-five years ago when a twenty-four-year-old man came to this town, walked into the RKO Studio, inspected it, and said: "This is the greatest electric train set any boy ever had."
We are here to celebrate what that man has done with that toy. We are here to celebrate the enduring value of what he has created and the knowledge that, even though his place in history is secure, he remains in the fray of moviemaking.
Each year the Trustees of The American Film Institute select one artist who has in a fundamental way advanced the film art and whose work has stood the test of time. Orson Welles has advanced the art of film like few others. He has had a positive and profound influence on international cinema.
Too often we measure a film only by its bank account. That is why, in making this award, the Trustees emphasize the test of time. Tonight you have seen inspired films which have met that test, and remembering the stormy seas that Orson Welles has weathered in his career, hear what the writer John Ruskin said, a hundred years ago, in noting that many of the most enduring works in art and literature are never paid for.
"How much," he asked, "do you think Homer got for his 'Iliad' or Dante for his 'Paradisio'. Only bitter bread and salt, and walking up and down other people's stairs."
So tonight we measure Orson Welles by his courage and the intensity of his personal vision. He has combined a mighty will with a child's heart to produce a film legacy. He reminds us that it is better to live one day as a lion than a hundred years as a sheep.
Orson Welles has had many days as a lion—as a man of radio, the theatre, as a magician, a painter, a writer, a designer. But, he will be remembered as a creator of films.
In presenting this award for life achievement, let us call him forth with the purest definition of a great man.
A great man never reminds us of others.
Mr. Orson Welles...
ORSON WELLES: My father once told me that the art of receiving a compliment is of all things the sign of a civilized man. And he died soon afterwards, leaving my education in this important matter sadly incomplete. I'm only glad that on this, the occasion of the rarest compliment he ever could have dreamed of, that he isn't here to see his son so publicly at a loss.
In receiving a compliment—or trying to—the words are all worn out by now. They're polluted by ham and corn and when you try to scratch around for some new ones, it's just an exercise in empty cleverness. What I feel this evening is not very clever. It's the very opposite of emptiness. The corny old phrase is the only one I know to say it. My heart is full. With a full heart—with all of it—I thank you.
This is Samuel Johnson on the subject of what he calls "Contrarieties."
"There are goods so opposed that we cannot seize both and in trying, fail to seize either. Flatter not yourself," he says, "with contrarieties. Of the blessings set before you, make your choice. No man can at the same time fill his cup from the source and from the mouth of the Nile."
Well, this business of contrarieties has to do with us. With you who are paying me this compliment and with me who have strayed so far from this hometown of ours. Not that I'm alone in this or unique. I am never that. But there are a few of us left in this conglomerated world of ours who still trudge stubbornly along the lonely, rocky road and this is, in fact, our contrariety.
We don't move nearly as fast as our cousins on the freeway. We don't even get as much accomplished, just as the family-sized farm can't possibly raise as many crops or get as much profit as the agricultural factory of today.
What we do come up with has no special right to call itself better. It's just different. No, if there's any excuse for us at all it's that we're simply following the old American tradition of the maverick. And we are a vanishing breed. This honor I can only accept in the name of all the mavericks. And also as a tribute to the generosity of all the rest of you—to the givers—to the ones with fixed addresses.
A maverick may go his own way but he doesn't think that it's the only way or ever claim that it's the best one—except maybe for himself. And don't imagine that this raggle-taggle gypsy is claiming to be free. It's just that some of the necessities to which I am a slave are different from yours.
As a director, for instance, I pay myself out of my acting jobs. I use my own work to subsidize my work. In other words, I'm crazy. But not crazy enough to pretend to be free. But it's a fact that many of the films you've seen tonight could never have been made otherwise. Or if otherwise—well, they might have been better. But certainly they wouldn't have been mine. The truth is I don't believe that this great evening would ever have brightened my life if it weren't for this—my own particular contrarity.
Let us—Let us raise our cups then standing, as some of us do, on opposite ends of the river and drink together to what really matters to us all—to our crazy and beloved profession. To the movies—to good movies—to every possible kind.
I leave you now in default of the eloquence this high occasion deserves with another very short scene from the same film—a piece of which you saw earlier with John Huston and Peter Bogdanovich—just by way of saying goodnight from one who will remember tonight—not as a sort of gala visit but as a very happy homecoming. And who remains not only your obedient servant, but also in this age of supermarkets your friendly neighborhood grocery store.
The scene that you're going to see takes place in a projection room. And waiting there is the capitol 'B' big studio boss, who is played by Geoffrey Land. And Norman Foster is one of Jake Hannaford's stooges. Jake is the character John Huston plays and he is called Jake because ever since Frank Sinatra and I became friends, he has always called me "Jake." He's the only one who calls me Jake, it's a private joke, and for that reason, this director, who isn't me, is called Jake. Anyway, he has a stooge, and the stooge is trying to sell the unfinished movie that Jake is making, for which he needs “end money” (laughter). Billy is supposed to explain the plot, as far as he can remember it, and incidentally to sell the movie to Mr. Big, who is a handsome young studio head, a former actor, who by the way bears no resemblance to anyone—unless you insist!
Thank you and goodnight.