The Life Of One Exceptional Cinematic Genius: Orson Welles

Posted on September 23, 2012 in Media and Culture

By Pooja Mahesh:

Born on May 5, 1915, Orson Welles was a pioneer in film and radio. Welles can be considered to be a film prodigy considering the fact that he was very young when he started his career and his unconventional thinking in terms of technique for his movies. Welles was brought up by Maurice Bernstein after the death of his parents when he was thirteen and Bernstein soon become his legal guardian when Welles turned fifteen. Welles was enrolled into the Todd School in Woodstock, Illinois when Bernstein discovered his creative passions. While at Todd, Welles realized his passion for theatre.

Welles began his career as an actor in Dublin, leaving America with the little inheritance that he had. He acted in various plays in Dublin and passed himself as a Broadway actor to various theatre companies. When he was nineteen, he officially began his career as a Broadway actor, starring in the play, ‘Romeo and Juliet‘, as Tybalt. His appearance led him to be cast in the ‘Federal Theatre Project‘ by John Houseman. His association with Houseman would prove to be an important one for his career later on, as a Hollywood director.

With Houseman, Welles began the program ‘Mercury Theatre On Air‘. Even though there was much critical praise for the series, the ratings for the program were low. This changed when Welles adapted the popular science fiction novel, H.G. Wells ”The War of the Worlds‘. The play was preceded by much news coverage which indicated that the alien invasion was real. This adaptation became one of his most successful radio adapted plays and rocket-launched him into a film career.

With the success of his Radio Play, Welles signed a two film $ 225,000 contract with the Radio-Keith-Orpheum (RKO) in the year 1940. This contract enabled him to write, direct and produce both his films. Being just twenty-four years of age, this deal offered him total creative control and a percentage of the profit, making this one of the most lucrative offers that a newcomer can have.

Success did not come immediately for Welles. His adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel, ‘Heart of Darkness‘ did not do as well and this movie was just a little sample of Welles’ many talents and paled in comparison when his actual debut film was released in 1941. ‘Citizen Kane‘ marked the arrival of Welles into Hollywood, predominantly as a director and an actor. The movie bases itself on the life of William Randolph Hearst, the editor of ‘The New Yorker’ and publishing magnate. The movie recounts the life of Charles Foster Kane, a newspaper man and his gradual rise into power and the corruption that follows as a result of the same.

The movie got nominated for nine Academy Awards and for this movie, Welles used various techniques, of which many he pioneered. For example, it includes the use of deep focus cinematography which shows objects minutely, that is, a detailed portrayal. He also used low angle shots and used various points of view for his narration in the movie. His second movie for the production house, ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’ was a simple project and helped Welles stay put with Hollywood. When he returned from Rio de Janerio after shooting a documentary, he found that its ending had changed and this caused Welles to disown the project and created a rift between Welles and the RKO.

The 1970s was a difficult period for Welles — he did not do much during this period and faced a difficult time. He was also plagued by health issues, of which obesity caused him the most amount of trouble, when he weighed almost four hundred pounds at one point. Welles became estranged from Hollywood for a period of ten years, returning only towards the latter half of his life. He received the Lifetime Achievement Award by the ‘American Film Institute’ and the ‘D.W. Griffith Award‘ by the ‘Directors Guild of America‘ in 1985, which is one its highest honours.

Orson Welles died shortly after doing his interview on ‘The Mery Griffin Show’ on October 10, 1985. He suffered from a heart attack soon after he reached his Los Angeles home. Orson Welles’ cinema techniques and ideas inspired a generation of film makers and he has left a lasting impression for future generations to take such steps towards creating enigmatic cinema.

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