Culture

When 'Midnight' Struck Orson Welles' Career

Terry Teachout writes in the Wall Street Journal that Chimes at Midnight, released in 1965, just as Orson Welles’ career as a film director would go into a long period of freefall, is being re-released in a “brand-new, never-seen-before restoration” next month. As Teachout writes, this restoration covers a multitude of cinematic sins:

The reason it had to be restored is that “Chimes at Midnight” was made independently and on the cheap, for by 1965 Mr. Welles had so antagonized the Hollywood establishment that no major studio would have anything to do with him. As a result, “Chimes at Midnight” was shot, edited and dubbed under substandard conditions, and the prints that have circulated since the film’s original release are all of low quality.

But why was Welles so hated by Hollywood? It wasn’t for his acting; Welles would have died a wealthy man if all he did was appear as a featured character actor in other directors’ movies. Instead, Welles plowed much of his own money from acting into self-funding his later pictures. As Welles said at his infamous American Film Institute tribute in 1975, where he was “honored” as a director by many of the same men who would never think of hiring Welles to direct a film for their studios:

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.

Teachout wonders if it was perfectionism that eventually grounded Orson Welles’ film career:

The road to malignant perfectionism, by contrast, starts with chronic indecision. Jerome Robbins, whose inability to make up his mind was legendary throughout the world of dance, was known for choreographing multiple versions of a variation, then waiting until the last possible minute to decide which one to use. Beyond a certain point, this kind of perfectionism is all but impossible to distinguish from unprofessionalism, and Mr. Welles reached that point early in his career. Instead of carefully thinking through what he wanted to do and making the tough calls in advance, he walked into the studio unprepared, trusting in his ability to pull everything together at the dress rehearsal. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t, and once he moved from Broadway to Hollywood, the financial stakes grew so high that no one was willing to gamble on his genius.

Mr. Welles’s problem was that he wanted it both ways. He was a perfectionist who expected his collaborators to sit around endlessly waiting for him to make up his mind—and to pay for all the overtime that he ran up along the way. Simon Callow, his biographer, has summed up this failing in one devastating sentence: “Any form of limitation, obligation, responsibility or enforced duty was intolerable to him, rendering him claustrophobic and destructive.” That’s the wrong kind of perfectionism, and it led, as it usually does, to disaster.

Is “Chimes at Midnight” a masterpiece? Opinions vary, widely and wildly. For all its flaws, I incline to think so, but I also think that if Mr. Welles hadn’t suffered from malignant perfectionism, he might have made many more such masterpieces. Instead his career was brilliant but fragmentary—as well as an object lesson in the dangers of not knowing when to write “The End” and move on.

As somebody once said (and Googling around to find whom, I’ve seen it credited to just about everyone), “A work of art is never finished. It is merely abandoned.” But if perfectionism derailed Welles’ career in Hollywood, it wasn’t his biggest sin.

In 1985, Charles Higham’s biography of Welles was published shortly before Welles passed away at age 70. It concluded with one of the most brutal — and most brutally honest appraisals of how Welles’ career went off the rails. He wanted to be a film director, but forgot — or didn’t care — that it was a mass medium:

The truth is that Welles gallantly tried to do the impossible: he tried to create films as novelists create novels, as poets create poems, as composers create music, as painters create paintings. Snatching fi­nances from any possible source, drawing from his own pocket when need be, taking all the time that seemed necessary, he has gone beyond any other figure of the screen, including even Kurosawa and Renoir, in seeking to convey a personal vision through celluloid, at his own pace and without restraints. Many lives have been affected, not all for the better, and many pockets have been emptied in this relentlessly single- minded pursuit. Yet those who have understood him, who have been really close to him, have put up with everything in order to accommo­date the genius they recognized. He has displayed a manic excess and self-destructiveness that, as Leslie Fiedler disclosed in his The Life and Death of the American Novel, is a very American trait. And there is another consideration.

It is an axiom in the commercial cinema that the central figure of any work must be a human being with whom the mass audience can identify. He or she has to be likable, attractive, desirable, even when capable of villainy; he or she must speak the language of the people. Scriptwriters of pjoven commercial worth have deliberately tailored their scripts to the specific needs of stars so as not to extend their range too far, and the stars themselves more often than not make further al­terations to suit their personalities. Yet so relentlessly has Welles worked against the commercial grain that he has even dared to make the central figures of his films unsympathetic.

In Citizen Kane Welles created a selfish, heartless tycoon who is de­stroyed spiritually by his own greed and ambition. Americans could have comfortably accepted a rogue or a pirate of this sort, but someone who was haunted by agonizing visions of lost innocence alienated and confused the mass audience for decades. In The Magnificent Ambersons Welles portrayed an impudent, bad-tempered puppy of a man, George Minafer, who disrupted the life of a small town; this charmless creature proved impossible to identify with in an age of heroes of the caliber of Tyrone Power and Errol Flynn. The other protagonist of the story, Aunt Fanny, was the sort of figure usually made fun of in Ameri­can films: the tortured virgin spinster who hopelessly sets her cap for a man she cannot have. Contemporary audiences laughed at Aunt Fanny, whose misery failed to touch a chord in the American heart.

Citizen Kane lost well over $100,000, and The Magnificent Ambersons lost more than half a million. Following his failure to finish It’s All True, Welles attempted a comeback with The Stranger, a movie in which the protagonist was a Nazi war criminal hiding in a small American town. Again it was impossible for the audience to identify with such a person; the war was only just over, and there were few families that had not been affected by it. The Lady from Shanghai had as its hero a liberal sailor who had supported the loyalist cause in the Spanish Civil War—and many Americans knew that people like that were Communist sympathizers. The making of Rita Hayworth, reign­ing sex goddess of the American screen, into a murderess further alien­ated the public.

Shakespeare has never been box office in America, so Welles’s Shakespearean trilogy sank without a trace. Ironically, while the films he directed were failing, Welles himself was highly bankable as an actor and public personality, much as he is today. In Europe, Welles’s discipline disintegrated, and he lost control of his career. As his waist­line grew, his career shriveled; it was almost as though eating and drinking were substitutes for creativity.

Today we glory in WeIles’s presence: his proposed return to the director’s chair is a matter for rejoicing. He is a national treasure. But to pretend that he was maliciously rubbed out by Hollywood is of no help to history. Some perverse streak of anticommercialism drove him; he was the brilliant architect of his own downfall, and it is impossible to avoid that truth today.

In that sense, Welles was born decades before his time. Film today is less of a mass entertainment medium than it ever was in its heyday. Today, a film director can deliberately aim for a small “boutique” audience, and the studios will go along with that, knowing that as long as the director stays within a prescribed budget, the studio will make its money back on DVD sales, Netflix and video store rentals, premium and basic cable showings, and other ancillary means. In his 2005 book The Big Picture, Edward Jay Epstein explored how Hollywood slowly became “a clearinghouse for intellectual property, not a factory for making movies,” as Jonathan Last wrote in his review of Epstein’s book in the Weekly Standard. This allows for some interesting distortions of the marketplace: Woody Allen’s films have never been anywhere near as financially successful as those by Steven Spielberg or George Lucas, but a succession of studios have bankrolled him both because he’s a draw for other directors looking to work at UA or Orion, or whoever is funding Woody’s movies, and they’re relatively low budget enough that once the European, cable and DVD sales are added in, they’ve probably made money. (Although Hollywood’s accounting is so byzantine that nothing ever really makes money…)

But when Welles began as a director, there was no TV, let alone video tapes or discs. A film had to be successful at the box office, or the director was soon out of a job. The directors we remember from that period, such as Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, and Michael Curtiz, all wracked up hit after hit, because they knew the formula for pleasing audiences. And they also knew they’d be on the other side of the studio gates if they either alienated the public or alienated the studios who hired these cinematic craftsmen time and again. (Which is why a 90-minute Bronx Cheer to the audience such as Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories would have been unthinkable from a major Hollywood director during that period.)

As for Welles, he was both a director before his time, and a man who tried to make very individual art in the most expensive and collaborative of mediums. No wonder, in 1958’s Touch of Evil, his last film for a Hollywood studio, Marlene Dietrich, playing a gypsy fortune teller, told Welles’ character, “Your future’s all used up.”