"Everyone will always owe him everything." — Jean-Luc Godard on Welles' influence.
Always correct a lie
“They say” is the second most powerful pair of words in any language. When they go unanswered, they become the truth. It happens even when they are answered, but at least there’s a competing voice out there, as lonely as it may be. The popular myth of Orson Welles says that he was a man who had it all and then lost it, either because he wasn’t capable of following through on what he started, or because he had a self-destructive streak that was wider than his genius. The fact is, he was a man who had it all until it was taken away from him, mostly by the very people who said it was his own fault. Sometimes he was an accessory and sometimes he wasn't. But the crime was never his, and in the name of perfect balance, this needs to be repeated ten times for every time Welles is blamed for anything.
Money always trumps vision
The funniest thing about Hollywood is that there are a ton of people who claim to have “done” a ton of movies, when all they actually did was sign a paycheck. To these people, if they pay for it, they not only have a right to say how their money is going to be spent, but they also have a right to be part of the creative process—a right that implies that their creative input is equal to, if not greater than, what the director wants, never mind the writer. The truth is, there’s no such thing as creativity or vision when you’re dealing with people who, when something is successful, take every bit of the credit for themselves, and when something is a failure, blame everybody else in the world. These people always know better, even though they don't have the brains God gave a goat. They're the kind of fools who preview The Magnificent Ambersons to a theatre full of people who paid to see an Esther Williams movie, and then wonder why half the audience walked out on it, and then blame the director when they cut the movie to appeal to people who like Esther Williams movies and none of them show up to see it. Nothing these fools do is ever wrong, and they have the money to prove it. And they won't give a penny of it to people with vision, like Welles, without making them pay for it somehow.
Cecil Beaton, Portrait of Orson Welles, 1937
Always get the right to a final cut
The one movie Welles did over which he had total control is universally recognized as one of the greatest films ever: Citizen Kane. Imagine what he could have done with that kind of control for the rest of his career. But RKO made him revise his contract for Ambersons, giving them the right to a final cut as part of a deal to film a third movie (which he never did)—and yes, Welles signed that contract, so he knew what he was getting into. You can talk about good faith agreements all you want, but when you sign away a right, you can be sure that the party of the second part will trust only and always what you put your signature to. So treat that signature like a bargaining tool, and make it a point to never trade it for anything less than exactly what you want. And if you have to compromise (and the day will always come when you have to), make sure it's at least 60/40 in your favor.
Errol Flynn, Nora Eddington, Rita Hayworth & Welles celebrating
Hayworth's birthday during the filming of Lady in Shanghai.
The yacht in the film is The Zaca, Flynn's yacht.
Who you go to bed with is not who you wake up with
This is more like a Rita Hayworth life lesson, but Welles and Hayworth were married, so once again, it’s something he signed off on. Hayworth is famous for saying: “Every man I knew went to bed with Gilda... and woke up with me.” Welles could just as easily have said: “Every woman I knew went to bed with Orson The Genius, and woke up with me.” The point being: attraction and excitement might open the door, but they don’t furnish the room. Who one is in the world’s eyes is the role one plays, or the costume one wears, beneath which is always a nakedness that yearns to be loved just as much as that illusion. Love may begin with that illusion, but true love is waking up naked next to that nakedness, and always feeling exalted instead of disappointed.
Necessity is always inspirational
In that weird way in which government censorship inspires authors to think of clever ways to criticize the state without actually breaking any laws, hardship and calamity can be just as inspirational to the creative mind. In the middle of filming Othello, the producer of the movie went bankrupt, which meant among other things that there was no money to pay for all the costumes for the actors who would be part of the scene in which Roderigo is killed. Welles’ solution, predicated on the fact that nobody had a costume to wear, was both simple and brilliant—he filmed the scene in a Turkish bath. It remains one of the best scenes in the film.
Never give up
It took Welles three years to finish Othello, during which time the original producer went bankrupt, the part of Desdemona was re-cast and had to be completely re-shot, scenes that began in Morocco were finished in Rome, and Welles used his own money, including his salary from The Third Man, to fund the production. (As well as one of the costumes he wore in The Black Rose, a coat which he asked to be lined in mink, even though you never see the lining in that picture. The coat shows up in Othello with the lining exposed.) Think of everything Welles had to juggle just to get a project completed, and then consider how the setbacks he continually tried to surmount would have driven a lesser soul to give up. Welles never gave up. And what did the world say about that? “He took three years to finish Othello,” in a dismissive tone of voice. To which, if I had been Welles, I would have replied: ‘Yes, and I actually finished it, while any one of you would have given up after six months.” (Man, talk about being born too soon—imagine what Welles could do today with a Kickstarter campaign. Hell, I’d contribute to it. Wouldn’t you?)
Not knowing what you can’t do frees you to do anything
Whenever Welles talked about working on Citizen Kane, he made the point that he walked into the experience with an idea of what he wanted to do, not a set of preconceptions about how things should be done. So he just did it. There is nothing more creative than ignoring restrictions. Not being aware of limitations—which means not even admitting they exist—is like working in a room without walls. Everything’s a window; everything’s a door to somewhere else. Yes, the words “They say” are incredibly powerful, but in the end, there are two words which leave them in the dust: why not?
That, to my mind, is Welles’ legacy. He was the guy who said “Why not?” And even when the world said, “Because money,” or, “Because I said so,” or just, “Because,” he still got things done that nobody else could have dreamed of.
Happy 100th, Orson.
(And for a sonnet tribute, go here.)