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Jul212010

« In Which We Make The Film Fantastic »

You can find the first part of the Orson Welles journey here.

Orson Welles v. Hollywood

PETER BOGDANOVICH: You like Pasolini?

ORSON WELLES: Terribly bright and gifted. Crazy mixed-up kid, maybe — but on a very superior level. I mean Pasolini the poet, spoiled Christian, and Marxist ideologue. There's nothing mixed up about him on a movie set. Real authority and a wonderfully free way with the machinery.

PB: Do you remember Marco the Magnificent?

OW: Belgrade in the deep winter of — what was it?

PB: Sixty-four.

OW: A great year. The producer was the man who inspired Catch-22, Raoul Levy. According to Raoul Levy, yes, he was the original Yossarian. Fascinating type — you had to like him.

PB: Didn't he commit suicide?

OW: Well, he threatened to in front of Norm Geves' house and the gun went off. The Marco Polo film was sort of a suicide, too. He made that picture twice: The first time, with Alain Delon, he went broke and almost shut down the Yugoslavian film industry in the process. Then he got some more money together and made it all over again with Horst Buchholz. In both versions he had no script at all. Most of us just made it up as we went along. I did write a long scene for Omar Sharif, though. He was standing around looking gloomy because he'd been forced to be in that thing by Spiegel, to work out his contract from Lawrence of Arabia.

So I borrowed a typewriter and did what little I could. Tony Quinn came to town with his own private writer. He played Kubla Kahn, who, it turned out in Tony's authoritative version, was kindly, brave, benevolent, good, handsome, and irresistible to women. There was no grace or virtue which was not written into that character. And then he played it like Charlie Chan.

PB: At one point it was announced that you were going to direct The Bible for Dino De Laurentiis, thought it always seemed a little unlikely.

OW: Well, at first it was going to be Fellini and Bresson and myself — all three of us. Then, for a moment, Dino tried to persuade me to do the whole picture. Well, I couldn't really imagine doing the Garden of Eden, just for a start. And really, I didn't want to be responsible for the whole picture. So I got some kind of golden handshake for the script I'd done for the Abraham and Jacob sequences, and that was that. Bresson and Fellini weren't so lucky — they're still suing him, I think.

PB: Did you actually work with Bresson or Fellini preparing the picture?

OW: Well, we were photographed together. Repeatedly.

OW: I'd decided to throw a party for all the little Hollywood grandees from the old days who'd been friends and whom I hadn't seen in so long, having been in Europe for almost ten years, to show that I still remembered my friends — Sam Goldwyn and Jack Warner and all those kinds of people. And I was late. I'd been shooting Touch of Evil and I thought, "I won't take time to remove this terrible, enormous makeup that took forever to put on" — padded stomach and back, sixty pounds of it, and horrible old-age stuff. When I came into my house, before I had a chance to explain that I had to get upstairs and take my makeup off, all these people came up and said, "Hi Orson! Gee, you're looking great!"

PB: What happened when you first got back to Hollywood?

OW: Nothing; that was the trouble. I had really a very unhappy time — the worst — getting no work. I went a year with almost nothing, just sitting at home waiting for the phone to ring. And then I got a couple of jobs: The Long, Hot Summer, which I hated making — I've seldom been as unhappy in a picture; and imagine Man in the Shadow, a Jeff Chandler Western and a true deep-dyed B. He was a terribly nice, sad fellow whom I liked very much, but that was really hitting the bottom, you know, playing the head of a big ranch. And then came Touch of Evil and a tremendous high point — I thought I had it made and was going to stay and do a whole series of pictures with Universal.

PB: Didn't you do some television while you waiting around?

OW: Yes, I did a pilot for DesiluThe Fountain of Youth which they couldn't sell.

grant withington's shot-by-shot remake of The Fountain of Youth

PB: But it was later sold as a special and won the Peabody Award in 1958. It's really the best television show I've ever seen — created for the medium, as you said. I especially like what you did with the ticking of the clock all the way through. And didn't you do another pilot around that time?

OW: Yes, and I did a half-hour thing about Dumas called Camille, the Naked Lady and the Musketeers.

PB: For Desilu?

OW: I made it for myself. I spent my own money. I wanted to do a series of half-hour portraits of people. This was just me telling the story of the three Dumas, with pictures of them and drawings by me. In a purely narrative form, but quite visual in spite of that. Nobody would have any part of it. I thought I could sell it — syndication or something. Not a chance; nobody would look at it. I don't know what's ever happened to that, I wish I could find it.

At that dinner party I mentioned earlier, I showed them these two shorts — and Sam Goldwyn walked out of the first one and said, "I didn't come here to see a lot of shorts." I don't know what possessed him that night.

Then I spent a fortune — I wanted to do thirty-six weeks on the life of Churchill — which was later done with Richard Burton narrating. I must have spent $12,000 on research and things like that, and the tax people wouldn't let me deduct it. They said, "What did you do? You didn't sell it. You say you worked in your home — that's what every movie star says."

PB: What was Martin Ritt like directing The Long, Hot Summer?

OW: Well, he's the one who said to me, "I want you to relate to those windows," and I said, "Marty, you mean you want me to look at them?" But I enjoyed very much working with Joanne Woodward — we had nice scenes together — and with Angela Lansbury. I love her. But I wasn't very happy, although the picture was an enormous success. That's the one where the critic for the New York Times wrote, "Orson Welles, believe it or not, was quite good."

PB: Did you know Faulkner yourself?

OW: Yes. That movie, of course, had nothing to do with the book The Hamlet. It was largely an imitation of Tennessee Williams, using the name Faulkner. But I knew Faulkner pretty well.

with daughter Chris

PB: What kind of man was he?

OW: I don't really know — I never saw him anything but wildly drunk through the years. He must have been sober to produce that great body of work.

PB: You like his writing?

OW: Not as much as other people do, but I admire him, yes. I prefer the others - his rivals of that generation — Fitzgerald, I'm very fond of Hemingway, and I'm a great fan of a very underrated American writer, John O'Hara.

PB: What do you think of Fitzgerald's Hollywood novel, The Last Tycoon?

OW: It always seemed to me to be a great failure of a book by a great writer.

PB: Well, it wasn't finished.

OW: But even what's there — I don't think he understood Hollywood for a minute. I don't think he knew what he was talking about.

PB: You wrote a good article for Esquire around that time about the death of Hollywood.

OW: I remember that the editor felt he had to write a little thing in his column, that after all, Hollywood had treated me well.

PB: An apologia.

OW: Yes. I've never complained about Hollywood, but I'm not really one of the outstanding beneficiaries of the system.

PB: That must be one of the great understatements of —

OW: Nor did I think my article was very bitter about it. It seemed to me that his comments were totally unnecessary.

Some excerpts from Orson's piece, Twilight in the Smog, published in Esquire, March 1959:

It was Fred Allen who said in his fair-minded way that "California is a wonderful place if you're an orange." I guess what Fred was actually referring to was the general region of Los Angeles, or, as it's called, Greater Los Angeles (greater than what?). Like so many of us, this was the part of the state he knew best and liked the least.

Anyway, as the citrus people are first to admit, smog has taken the fun out of life even for the oranges...

According to the map, Hollywood is a district attached but not belonging to the City of Los Angeles. But this is not strictly accurate: Los Angeles — though huge, populous and rich — has never quite made it as a city. It remains a loose and sprawling confederation of suburbs and shopping centers. As for downtown Los Angeles, it's about as metropolitan as Des Moines or Schenectady...

There has never been a real metropolis that did not begin with a market place. Hollywood is a way station on a highway. Drive as far as you like in any direction: wherever you find yourself, it looks exactly like the road to an airport. Any road to any airport...

Is Hollywood's famous sun really setting? There is certainly a hint of twilight in the smog and lately, over the old movie capital there has fallen a grey-flannel shadow. Television is moving inexorably westward. Emptying the movie theaters across the land, it fills the movie studios. Another industry is building quite another town; and already, rising out of the gaudy ruins of screenland, we behold a new, drab, curiously solemn brand of the old foolishness.

There must always be a strong element of the absurd in the operation of a dream factory, but now there's less to laugh at and even less to like. The feverish gaiety has gone, a certain brassy vitality drained away. TV, after all, is a branch of the advertising business and Hollywood behaves increasingly like an annex of Madison Avenue.

Television — live, taped or on film — is still limited by the language barrier, while by nature and economics moving pictures are multi-lingual. Making them has always been an international affair. Directors, writer, producers, and above all, the stars come to Hollywood from all over the world and their pictures are addressed to a world public. The town's new industry threatens its traditional cosmopolitanism and substitutes a strong national flavor. This could not be otherwise since our television exists for the sole purpose of selling American products to American consumers.

With the biggest of the big film studios limping along on economy programs administered by skeleton staffs, the gold-rush atmosphere which once was Hollywood's own dizzy branch of charm is just a memory.

In its golden age — in the first years of  the movie boom — the mood and manner were indeed much like that of a gold rush. There was the frenzy and buccaneering hurly-burly of an earlier California: the vast fortunes found in a day and squandered in a night; the same cheerful violence and cutthroat anarchy. All of that Western turbulence has been silenced now.

You can find the previous entry in this series here.

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