Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Birthday Take: Orson Welles in "Citizen Kane" (1941)

Orson Welles in Citizen Kane
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Orson Welles
Born: May 6, 1915
Died: October 10, 1985 (70 years old)
Nomination: Best Director - Citizen Kane (nominated)

The Take

Without a doubt, Orson Welles may be the definitive tragic artist story of cinema's rich history. This doesn't mean that he had a vision and slowly declined with less interesting projects. Anyone who has seen his later films including Touch of Evil or F for Fake can attest that he has always been a compelling artist. However, when considering that his only Oscar-nominated work was, and deservedly so, for his first film Citizen Kane, it makes no sense why someone with such ingenuity that left a massive stamp on film culture in general has been largely ignored otherwise. The casual fan is likely to recall a few films by Martin Scorsese, John Ford or even Woody Allen. However, Welles will forever be the man who did Citizen Kane regardless of the impressive career on either side of his film.

For starters, the film had charisma that defied the 26-year-old director. With many sources noting its attack on William Randolph Hearst, it was a film that would push buttons with proper intent. He had an ego that famously decided to prank audiences with a radio play of H.G. Wells' "The War of the Worlds." Most of all, he was a performer whose attention to production details lead to astounding results. He was capable of anything to an enviable extent at such a young age that Citizen Kane kind of makes sense. His ego couldn't be beaten, as he was making literally what many consider the best American film ever made. It was a tough feat, especially for a first time director, but it made the stamp that should have lead to more greatest movies ever made. Not just in cinephile courts, but in the general lexicon.

It would take plenty of time to dissect what made the film exceptional. For starters, the positioning of the actors when they talked were deliberate. There were small clues that implied massive amounts of information. The camera technique was astounding. The miniatures looked far more convincing than they should have. Even the recognizable errors adds a sense of purpose to the film's overall tone. Everything about the film has a sense of urgency to it that even as time has gone on to notice its many flaws, they all are of service to the film at hand. It is direction so magnetic that it creates something greater. With a cast of stage actors making their cinematic debut, it is impressive that it worked out as well as it did. To say the least, Welles made a calling card that revolutionized film.

However, the greatness of his work was again overshadowed by his ego. Hearst was a tycoon who controlled large influence over Hollywood. It is allegedly why Citizen Kane lost to Ford's How Green Was My Valley. It remained the definitive evidence that the Academy has a political agenda. It would also be one thing if Welles failed to make another great film in the decades following this. If anything, he became even more ambitious to the point that he challenged studio systems over creative control. His work remains important to cinematic history beyond his debut, but it is the only film that the Academy, and general fans, will likely remember from him. The ego that made him great is likely the ego that humbled him into historical obscurity in his older age.

So while Welles is definitely a talent to be reckoned with, even on his centennial anniversary, it is also a moment when we question what would have happened if he was more accepted. Would Citizen Kane have left a bigger imprint? Would we be talking about The Magnificent Ambersons or The Trial with the same reverence publicly? I do think that there's pros and cons to the life that he lead. However, for a man whose youth is more revered and remembered than the other half of his life, there's something bittersweet about it. He could have been on par with Ford, Allen or Scorsese culturally. Instead, he's simply the man behind Citizen Kane. While this isn't the worst thing to be remembered for, it definitely leaves one wondering why we don't mention his other work more.

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