Orson Welles: remembering the `Wonder Kid from Kenosha'

WHEN Orson Welles was 10 years old, he is said to have made himself up as King Lear. Six decades later he still had something of the face of a boy disguised as an old man. His pug nose, he once lamented, stopped growing around 10. His eyes continued to shine with a kind of Halloween mischief, as if he were about to plan another trick like the one he played on Oct. 30, 1938, when his broadcast of H. G. Wells's ``The War of the Worlds'' frightened his radio audience into believing that Martians were landing in New Jersey.

All his life Orson Welles got himself up as a child's idea of a Great Actor. No matter what he wore, one could see the invisible cape, the rakish hat, the silver-handled cane. The head always struck just the right profile. Even in conversation the voice resonated with the wonderful plumy sound of a 19th-century Hamlet hurling soliloquies into the second balcony.

In 1940, when he was only 25, the ``Wonder Kid from Kenosha'' (Wisconsin) directed, helped write, and starred in his masterpiece ``Citizen Kane,'' which many still regard as the greatest American film since sound. The dark study of a flawed hero who resembled William Randolph Hearst haunted Welles with its success for the rest of his life.

Did Welles himself become an American tragedy -- a success with no second act? Or does he stand as another victim of The System -- one more case history to prove that American institutions (above all, Hollywood) have no idea what to do with the very talented and the somewhat maverick?

The standard questions are provocative, but they don't touch the heights of Welles's ambition and the depths of his boredom.

Welles parlayed the success of ``Citizen Kane'' to make innovative and uneven film versions of ``Macbeth'' and ``Othello.'' But more and more he had to finance his own films by acting in the films of others, sometimes in distin guished supporting roles, like Father Mapple in ``Moby Dick'' or Harry Lime in ``The Third Man'' -- and sometimes in swashbucklers like ``The Black Rose'' and ``Prince of Foxes.''

If Welles kept the appearance of ``a giant with the look of a child,'' as one friend described him, he retained temperamental aspects of a child, too. He had trouble finishing what he started. ``I am constantly changing,'' he said, putting the best face on it. ``I am an experimenter.''

``The Lady from Shanghai,'' starring his second wife, Rita Hayworth, and ``Touch of Evil'' became Welles cult films. But even his admirers had to concede a growing whimsical impulse to create effects for their own sake.

He called film ``a ribbon of dreams'' and seemed at times a little too content to keep things vague, or as he put it, ``poetic.''

Such rhetoric suited the role he finally settled on playing -- himself. Hollywood both distrusted Welles and stood in awe of him as the local idea of a ``genius.'' Playing up to what was expected of him, he fulfilled the words of his friend Jean Cocteau, the French poet and filmmaker: ``His weaknesses, to which the public clings as to a life preserver, have alone afforded him any success.''

Welles became a wandering man of projects, looking for a patron in a world of bankers. ``I can't spend my whole life at festivals or in restaurants begging for money,'' he once said. But he did.

He adapted his persona to television talk shows and commercials. If he brought a certain hamminess to his art, he brought a certain grandeur to his necessity.

With wit and style he played his loss to the hilt. We, the careless or insensitive world, would never know what we had missed by not letting Orson Welles be Orson Welles.


The French director Franois Truffaut has made audio cassettes of Welles films. Not a bad idea. It's all there in the voice, so sophisticated and so naive -- full of such authority, full of such romantic yearning. The music of perpetual promise.

Welles believed in art as a form of magic and never despaired of pulling the rabbit out of his hat, to the astonished delight of the child in himself and his audience.

As a young man, he gave Cocteau a toy white rabbit that could move its ears and play the drum. Cocteau, an inveterate symbolist who understood Welles better than most of us, was charmed, making the most of the plaything as Welles's gift to him -- and a perfect gesture toward the world.

A Wednesday and Friday column

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