Betsy Blair on working with Orson Welles on OTHELLO
Joseph McBride has sent along this link to a delightful interview with Betsy Blair, recorded when she appeared at The London Review Bookshop in 2005 to talk about her autobiography, The Memory of All That.
Ms. Blair candidly tells of how Welles called and asked her to play Desdemona, and how she learned only after she got to Rome that two actresses had already preceded her in the role. Also, how Welles asked her to buy her own plane ticket home once he had run out of money, but in reality had already decided that she wasn't quite right for the part!
Blair also talks frankly about the Hollywood blacklist, her husband Gene Kelly dancing in the rain in London, working in Europe with Free Cinema directors Lindsay Anderson and Karel Reisz (who became her second husband in 1963) and why Elia Kazan should never have received a special Academy Award honoring his career.
Listen to the entire fascinating interview HERE
To put Betsy Blair's comments about her work on Othello into context, here are some passages from Peter Noble's The Fabulous Orson Welles and Micheal MacLiammoir's diary about the chaotic conditions that surrounded the making of Othello.
Since Peter Noble's account is second-hand, it contains several inaccurate points, such as Blair meeting Welles at the Ritz Hotel in Paris in the company of Anatole Litvak. In her book, Blair says she met Welles after she flew to Rome and went to dinner with Welles and Alexander Trauner. Welles also told Blair he had cast her as Desdemona after seeing her in The Snake Pit. It also seems more than likely that if Welles had actually met Blair in Paris, he would have probably realized she had a screen presence that was too contemporary to play Desdemona, although Welles's own conception of the part (and one Blair says she discussed with Welles) was to make Desdemona a modern woman in the 15th Century, as Welles himself relates in his essay film, Filming Othello.
PETER NOBLE: The Search for Desdemona continued (After Cecile Aubry left to appear in another film). Orson met director Anatole Litvak at the Ritz, and Litvak told him of a new actress called Betsy Blair, who had just played a small part in his latest picture The Snake Pit. The next day Orson met her, in company with Litvak, and pronounced her ideal. For the moment, however, he was in urgent need of further money to continue with the preparation of the picture. All activity ceased...
...(After production had resumed in Morocco), Welles confessed to Michael and Hilton Edwards that he thought Betsy Blair was "a shade too modern" as Desdemona. Rather reluctantly MacLiammoir agreed. Orson began to look more worried than ever...
...Welles decided to look for another Desdemona. This, he assured everyone, was no reflection at all upon the talents of Betsy Blair, whom he considered a brilliant young actress. (He was right--as those who saw her magnificent performance in the recent film Marty will affirm.) It was simply that Welles, ever the perfectionist, considered that her conception of Desdemona was too modern for his particular taste. So Betsy stepped out and Suzanne Cloutier stepped in.
Back in Hollywood the still bitter Louella Parsons printed that the reason Betsy Blair left the cast was that she simply was not paid!
ROME MAY 27 1949
Were joined later on by Betsy Blair, the new Desdemona, who has the same gentle beauty as her picture in The Snake Pit and infinitely more to say about life than she had on the screen. Just arrived with immense enthusiasm (how long will that last?) from Hollywood, is staying in Rome, and had driven to Frascati accompanied by a long thin American journalist called Slim who takes incessant photographs of everybody at all moments as if it were a nervous habit (which by this time it probably is).
ROME MAY 29 1949
Kitty the Hare has returned to her flat on the Via Antonelli, but tonight came to dine with Betsy and told some wonderful stories about Rome during the war; also reported rather nervously but with dedicated expression, No News from Orson.
Betsy charming and of genuine intelligence; argues beautifully about acting, women, communism, America, friendship, and religion without losing her head when she loses a point (a rare thing in a woman), or even becoming winsomely inarticulate (even rarer in a pretty woman). Only thing that worries me is: will Orson find her right for Desdemona? "Modern" is a tiresome adjective for a personality, but that is what she is, with an undisguised frankness in her eyes and free loose-limbed gestures and walk. Would cast her unhesitatingly for Jo in Little Women or equally for any girl who walks straight and alone into life, but cannot feel the Renaissance, the Latin world of the fifteenth century, or hear her, in answer to Emilia's "Alack, who has done this deed?," reply: "Nobody. I myself. Commend me to my kind Lord." Must keep these thoughts inside my own head.
MOGADOR JULY 14 1949
Betsy sent on mysterious holiday to Paris by Orson, who has bloodshot eyes again. We all miss her badly, and the dining-room Symposia, now that Doris (Dowling) has finished Bianca and returned to Rome, are completely Stag and frequently Rude. I was desperately sorry to see Betsy go away and to hear from Orson after her departure that he was worrying about her being too modern. Felt as guilty as if I'd spoken my own thoughts to him, and find completely selfish satisfaction in reflecting that I didn't. Orson himself has not yet informed her of his feeling, for in this matter, as in all others, he is an eerie mixture of atomic bomb and keepsake album; but it seems he is already looking about for yet another Desdemona.