Wednesday, May 06, 2015

“In the end, he gets nothing” (from Orson Welles on his 100th)

It’s Orson Welles’s birth centenary today. From Peter Bogdanovich’s superb book-length collection of conversations with Welles, here are some quotes from the big man. First, on two of his greatest movie roles.

On Shakespeare’s Falstaff, a character with whom I think Welles may have identified:

Bogdanovich: You called him “the one good man”.

Welles: I think he’s one of the only great characters in all dramatic literature who is essentially good. He’s good in the sense that the hippies are good. The comedy is all about the gross faults in the man, but those faults are so trivial: his famous cowardice is a joke – a joke Falstaff seems to be telling himself against himself; a strong case could be made for his courage. But his goodness is basic – like bread, like wine. He’s just shining with love; he asks for so little, and in the end, of course, he gets nothing.

Even if the good old days never existed, the fact that we can conceive of such a world is, in fact, an affirmation of the human spirit. That the imagination of man is capable of creating the myth of a more open, more generous time is not a sign of our folly. Every country has its “Merrie England”, a season of innocence, a dew-bright morning of the world. Shakespeare sings of that lost Maytime in many of his plays, and Falstaff – that pot-ridden old rogue – is its perfect embodiment. All the roguery and the tavern wit and the liar and the bluff is simply a turn of his – it’s a little song he sings for his supper. It isn’t really what he’s about.

And this about Harry Lime, his small but enormously memorable role in The Third Man:

Bogdanovich: You have the smallest part but it dominates one's whole memory of the film.

Welles: That's the part, you know. Every sentence in the whole script is about Harry Lime – nobody talks about anything else for ten reels. And there's that shot in the doorway – what a star entrance that was! In theatre, you know, the old star actors never liked to come on until the end of the first act. Mister Wu is a classic example. I've played it once myself. All the other actors boil around the stage for about an hour, shrieking, "What will happen when Mister Wu arrives?" "What is he like, this Mister Wu?," and so on. Finally a great gong is beaten, and slowly over a Chinese bridge comes Mister Wu himself in full mandarin robes. Peach Blossom (or whatever her name is) falls on her face and a lot of coolies yell, "Mister Wu!!!" The curtain comes down, the audience goes wild, and everybody says, "Isn't that guy playing Mister Wu a great actor!" 
That's a star part for you! What matters in that kind of role is not how many lines you have, but how few. What counts is how much the other characters talk about you. Such a star vehicle really is a vehicle. All you have to do is ride.

And this in response to Bogdanovich asking him what to teach a group of people who wanted to be directors:

"The movie director must always remain a slightly ambiguous figure, because so much of what he signs his name to came from elsewhere, so many of his best things are merely accidents over which he presides. Or the good fortune he receives. Or the grace [...]

Hold a mirror up to nature – that’s Shakespeare’s message to the actor. How much more does that apply, and how much more is it true, to the creator of a film? If you don’t know something about the nature to which you’re holding up your mirror, how limited your work must be! The more film people pay homage to each other, and to films rather than to life, the more they are approximating the last scene of The Lady From Shanghai – a series of mirrors reflecting each other. 

A movie is a reflection of the entire culture of the man who makes it – his education, human knowledge, his breadth of understanding – all this is what informs a picture [...] and the degree to which that can be done depends on what he has of himself by way of raw materials [...] the angle at which you hold that mirror, which is determined by moral, aesthetic and ideological orientation. Everything depends upon that angle. A mirror is just what it is."

And here's another great quote, from an earlier post: "Let filmmakers beware of films..."

(Oh heck, just read the whole book. It’s packed with gems. And go watch or re-watch Chimes at Midnight, Touch of Evil and F for Fake.)


  1. What a man! Maybe he never died, like Netaji he is hiding somewhere, in a huge deserted mansion, watching the world change around him, hiding from his past, destroyed by a femme fatale, wracked by jealousy, corrupted & corrupting. Somewhere he has pulled a long con all of us, a sleight of hand, the three card monty, distracting us with that honeyed voice over, the deep focus, & the one man orchestra his movies became in later life. But oh, what fun...


  2. I was lucky to get a chance to watch his rediscovered 1938 short Too Much Johnson couple of years back at Berkeley. An extremely accomplished piece of work by someone just starting off.

    Btw, one of my favorite Welles video resources online is Citizen Welles & also for articles.

    He is getting good coverage from the US press. Wall Street Journal alerted me last night about his centenary with this intriguing article about how modern he was - NYTimes reminded us to fund his last movie The Other Side Of The Wind -,

    Check out his radio shows on Wellesnet - true works of art, especially in his later years when that was the only creative outlet he had left, & also this selection of songs he planned to use in his Brazil documentary for which he lost control over the final cut of The Magnificent Ambersons -