The Magnificent Welles
The Magnificent Welles: The Rise and Fall of Orson Welles Written by and Starring Marcus Wolland VHS, 93 minutes, $19.99 Available from StageDirect
Beginning with the "restoration" of Othello, through the rash of biographies and other books by Simon Callow, David Thomson, and others, to the re-edited Touch of Evil, the 1990s saw a rebirth of sorts for Orson Welles in the public eye. With the heightened profile came those looking to explore Welles further, this time in a fictional medium. Movies like RKO 281 and Cradle Will Rock, and plays including Orson's Shadow, It's All True, and Lost Eden all looked at aspects of Welles' career. The Magnificent Welles preserves one of these attempts, Marcus Wolland's Lost Eden.
When I looked at the publicity for the play before viewing it, my initial reaction was not to expect a great deal; if celebrities are difficult to imitate believably, Welles is doubly so, given his unique voice and charisma. Also, Wolland noted that he used Thomson's Rosebud as a prime source in writing the play. That book stands with Charles Higham's bio as the worst in the ranks of books about Welles. Finally, the tape title implies yet again that Welles was finished after 1942, which was hardly the case.
That being said, The Magnificent Welles is a generally enjoyable play if not taken too seriously as Welles scholarship. A one-man show, TMW presents us with Welles in Rio, filming It's All True. He is writing his memoirs, a device that allows the telling of Welles' life story. In between segments of the tale are phone calls back to the States, as Welles has been told of the "disastrous" Pomona preview of The Magnificent Ambersons. He tries, during the course of the night, to try and get answers as to what's happening and consequently, to save the film. While the general public will either enjoy the play or not for what it is, knowledgeable Welles fans may find that the first hour or so drags at times, as Wolland is telling us what we already know in Welles' life story. Numerous events are run through, some with more biographical insight than others, and if you're already acquainted with the goings-on, it may come off a bit tedious at times. Also, the events related are what in retrospect were important; events Welles might have discussed more fully at the time, like his radio career beyond The Shadow and "War of the Worlds," are left alone.
My problem with the memoirs device is that Welles likely wouldn't have done such a thing at that point in his life. He found honest autobiography very difficult throughout his life, and during his early career, allowing others to trumpet his praises rather than doing so himself. Still, it's a one man show and I understand the need for such a device. Beyond The Cradle Will Rock, Welles' political motivations and interests are largely ignored, though his involvement in such causes was well known then and now. Wolland wastes an opportunity of sorts in not including the It's All True fiasco in full, if he really wanted to illustrate Welles' "fall." Wolland is fine as Welles, though he lays the smirking arrogance on a bit thick at times. He does a capable job of keeping the attention focused on him and the story.
The questions of what has been left out brings us back to the problems in portraying Welles; here is another one: Welles simply did too much to suitably convey in a 90 minute show, much less a longer time. How to adequately cover the whirlwind of activities, professional and personal, that carried Welles through the years leading up to the play? Simply put, it's probably impossible. And it's difficult to ignore one element while focusing on another, because the picture is then incomplete. Wolland's focus is on the chief events that led to Welles being hailed as the young genius of his time, but in doing so loses other, equally important elements of who Welles was.
The final half hour is excellent, as the story turns from Welles' past to his immediate future, as he discovers that Ambersons will be truly lost to him, becoming another "lost eden," as he puts it. Wolland is at his best here, less reliant on an impersonation of Welles than conveying the dramatic potency of the story. I may have felt this way about this sequence knowing what I do about Ambersons; I do wonder if audiences unfamiliar with Welles will simply think "the jerk got what he deserved."
The play is filmed in a quiet fashion that doesn't call attention to itself often, and this works well in attempting to duplicate some semblance of a theater-going experience. Video and audio quality are solid.
In the end, The Magnificent Welles will not please all Welles fans. Some will find it objectionable on the grounds of Wolland's slant on Welles, and others won't appreciate the history they already know well. Overall though, it's a solid representation of one view of Welles, like it or not. It's worth checking out.