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Professor's new book explores 'Citizen' Welles

November 27, 2006

Photo of director Orson Welles, writer/actor Peter Bogdonavich and Joseph McBride on The Other Side of the Wind set in 1970In his new book, Assistant Professor of Cinema Joseph McBride contends that filmmaker Orson Welles' final 15 years were among his most creative and innovative. McBride wants to reverse the common belief that the "Citizen Kane" filmmaker's later years were marked only by debauchery and commercial endorsements.

In "What Ever Happened to Orson Welles? A Portrait of an Independent Career" (University Press of Kentucky), McBride reveals little-known facts on the House Un-American Activities Committee's blacklisting, which kept Welles out of Hollywood for decades. McBride also explores the director's lesser-known films -- many never released. The book is a deeply personal portrait of a misunderstood man taken for granted.

Martin Scorsese, in a quote that appears on the book's jacket, said: "Joseph McBride, who has a clearer understanding of Welles and his films than almost anyone … brings Welles and the difficulties he faced -- professional, political, personal -- into extremely sharp focus and leaves us with a portrait of a fiercely independent artist who wanted to work with his camera and film stock as freely as a painter with his brushes and canvas. This is an extremely important book."

McBride said Welles may have set the bar too high for his own good with "Citizen Kane," widely regarded as the best film ever made. After the 1941 classic, such Welles films as "MacBeth" and "Lady in Shanghai" were critical and box-office failures. "Part of his problem was he was 20 to 25 years ahead of his time," McBride said.

"Despite all the difficulties Welles faced, his old age was far from being a tragic wasteland," McBride writes in the book's introduction. "It was a period of great artistic fecundity and daring, even if it was largely hidden from public view."

Some only know Welles and his deep voice from his 1970s television commercials for such products as Paul Masson wine ("We will sell no wine before its time"). He also did a great deal of voiceover work in his final years, in such cult classics as "History of the World, Part I" and "The Transformers: The Movie."

"When Welles died [in 1985], he was at a low ebb in American society," said McBride, who has seen "Citizen Kane" about 85 times and once retyped its entire screenplay when studying Welles' work. "He was derided in his later years. People didn't realize he was making independent films, breaking new ground and doing innovative work."

In 1970, Welles began work on "The Other Side of the Wind," a Hollywood satire starring John Huston, Dennis Hopper and Mercedes McCambridge. At the time, McBride was a 23-year-old ambitious film scholar, journalist and fledgling screenwriter. A chance phone conversation with Welles led to a role as an overzealous, pretentious film critic in "The Other Side of the Wind."

McBride, who had no acting training, said the all-star cast was very helpful and friendly, but Welles "bullied me mercilessly."

"Every actor he handled differently," McBride said. "He was a master psychologist and could bring out the best."

McBride believes Welles wanted him to serve as an historian, in addition to actor, for "The Other Side of the Wind."

"Welles would offer context or commentaries on scenes he was shooting, almost as if we were doing a running interview about the film," McBride said. "Being around Welles was to watch a long-running, gloriously entertaining theatrical show, filled with brilliant conversation, humor and insight."

Welles never finished "The Other Side of the Wind" after six years of on-and-off production, but now filmmakers and producers are planning to complete it -- as with the overlooked gems "Chimes at Midnight" and "F is For Fake."

McBride's new book is his third on Welles and 15th overall. He has written biographies of John Ford and Steven Spielberg as well as "The Book of Movie Lists." McBride, who joined SF State in 2002, is a former Variety film critic and CNN commentator. He co-wrote the 1979 comedy "Rock 'n' Roll High School" and garnered Emmy Award nominations for co-writing American Film Institute tributes to Lillian Gish and Fred Astaire.

-- Matt Itelson
Photo: Felipe Herba, courtesy of University Press of Kentucky


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Last modified November 28, 2006 by University Communications