In the cinematography of Giants, Orson Welles occupies a celestial throne. As Patrick McGilligan, author of Young Orson: The Years of Luck and Genius on the Path to Citizen Kane, says, “If there were a Mount Rushmore of directors, he’s doubtless one of the four faces.” Yet, beneath the impression of his career, the shadows cast by his professional successes often darkened his personal connections. In revealing on his deathbed, Welles confessed that he had never truly been happy. This paints a bubbly man who torments by an unfulfilled quest for happiness despite reaching the heights of fame and creative success. Join FactsVerse as we delve into the life and legacy of this iconic artist, exploring the personal demons and tragedies that haunted him and led to his heartbreaking confession.
Orson Welles: Shakespearean prodigy
Born in 1915 in the quaint town of Kenosha, Wisconsin, Orson was the child of Richard Welles and Beatrice Ives, a successful concert pianist. From the outset, the couple never doubts that their second son is for extraordinary achievements. He hails as a genius, drawing the attention of psychologists who sought to his skills. Physically, too, he stood apart: by the age of 14, he had already reached his height of 6 feet, 3.5 inches, and his voice is a basso profundo that would later become his signature.
In Orson’s years, Dr. Maurice Bernstein, a close family friend, played a pivotal role in giving gifts. According to McGilligan, everyone amazes by his talents. They encouraged him to pursue art, and he would stage little performances for his parents and those interested in his development. Tragedy struck when Orson was just nine years old, as his mother suffers from hepatitis. The loss he experienced, according to McGilligan, created an emotional void at the heart of a person, much like in Citizen Kane. At the tender age of ten, he penned opera critiques for the local newspaper. His performing arts began with his first toy theater, and by the time he was 14, he was adapting and directing plays at school, even tackling a rendition of Shakespeare’s dramas.
Before he turned fifteen, Orson faced another heartbreak when his father passed away due to complications from alcoholism.
A Young Orson Welles
Following his father’s death, a young Orson comes to Ireland, for a short trip, but in reality, to seek opportunities. Remarkably, he secured a leading role in a play at the Gate Theatre in Dublin. Upon returning to Chicago, he published a collection of illustrated Shakespeare textbooks, which he co-authored with his former headmaster; these texts remained in print for three decades.
In 1938, at the age of 23, Orson captivated listeners with his radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, marking in a career half a century and over 25 films, including the revered 1941 masterpiece, Citizen Kane. Additionally, Welles had the remarkable ability to master any subject within hours, speeches in languages he encounters. As he tackled each medium in his diverse career, he grasps their potential, mastering the principles of light, sound, and cinematography.
Though his unwavering determination led to a tarnished reputation in the workplace, his personal life proved even more tumultuous.
Failed Marriages and Complex Love Affairs
Orson Welles’ romantic life was marked by a series of failed marriages and relationships. His first love, actress Virginia Nicolson, eloped with him in 1934 when they were both 19. However, their union was soon marred by Welles’ affairs, as he pursues Geraldine Fitzgerald and Dolores del Rio while Nicolson was pregnant. As Welles’ career becomes successful, Nicolson divorces him in 1940, stating, “Orson doesn’t have time to be married.”
In 1943, Welles married the screen icon Rita Hayworth, but their relationship was also plagued by his carelessness. By 1948, Hayworth had reached her breaking point and filed for divorce.
Orlon Welles and Paola Mori
Welles’ third marriage, to Italian actress Paola Mori, is shocked by her pregnancy. Despite their shotgun wedding in 1955, the couple drifted apart. Yet, even amidst his marriages, Welles found a long-term partner in Croatian actress Oja Kodar, who was 26 years his junior. For the final 24 years of his life, then remains. However, Welles never divorced Mori, returning to her and maintaining homes with both women.
Each of Welles’ marriages produced a daughter, though Hayworth’s daughter, Rebecca Welles, his true love was his mistress Dolores del Rio. Moreover, Welles adopted a son with actress Geraldine Fitzgerald—Sir Michael Lindsay-Hogg, a baronet and film director.
In his will, Welles bequeathed his movie copyrights to his wife, Mori, while leaving the rights to his unfinished films to his mistress, Kodar. This division sparked disputes over his estate that persisted for a very long time, serving as a testament to the complex tapestry of Orson Welles’ personal life.
Hollywood Struggles & an arising movie
It may be hard to believe, but the talent known for his work in theater and radio faced immense challenges when breaking into Hollywood. Despite his genius and flair, he found it difficult to fit in among the Hollywood elite. Welles’ first feature film debut resulted in his blacklisting, and it appeared as though the forces of old Hollywood were conspiring against him, betraying and undermining his films. Projects such as Touch of Evil and The Magnificent Ambersons saw Welles fired and his creative vision sidelined, as the films were re-shot and re-edited without his input.
As he entered his years, Welles struggled to secure work. In order to finance his films, he took on guest roles in commercials, TV shows, and other directors’ films. Unfortunately, due to insufficient funds or his own growing disillusionment, many of his films remained unfinished.
Welles’ life took a darker turn as he became unhealthy, severely overweight, and depressed over the fading of his former glory.
In a remarkable turn of events, in 2018, Netflix stepped in to complete one of Welles’ final unfinished films, “The Other Side of the Wind.” This posthumous act of restoration not only paid homage to the legendary director’s work but also allowed modern audiences to witness the cinematic brilliance of a man who, despite the hardships and obstacles he faced in Hollywood, left an indelible mark on the world of film.
The irony in his most celebrated work, Citizen Kane
The trajectory of Orson Welles’ life, marked by a meteoric rise and an eventual decline, bears a striking resemblance to the narrative of his most celebrated work, Citizen Kane. The film tells the tragic tale of Charles Foster Kane, a man at the pinnacle of his success, who could have become president but instead experiences a fall from grace in both his professional and personal life. The uncanny parallels between Kane and Welles’ life stories illustrate the poignant irony that pervades the film.
Both Kane and Welles’ tragic arcs begin in childhood. In Citizen Kane, the young Charles Kane is robbed of his youth when his parents send him away to a business tycoon, intending to secure a prosperous future for him in business and politics. This pivotal moment marks the end of his innocence and forces him to grow up prematurely. In a similar vein, Orson faced enormous expectations from his mother, which propelled him into a life of greatness. This pressure led him to excel in various fields, becoming an iconic playwright, radio producer, filmmaker, magician, maverick, and true Renaissance man.
The most heartbreaking line in the film occurs at the beginning, with Kane’s final words: “Rosebud.” These words, a reference to his childhood sled, symbolize the innocence and happiness he experienced before being thrust into the world of business and politics. The irony lies in the fact that everyone in the story assumes “Rosebud” relates to wealth, power, or romance, yet it represents the purest and most poignant memory from Kane’s life.
In this manner, Citizen Kane foreshadows the eventual downfall of Orson Welles. Both the character and the creator rise from humble beginnings to attain remarkable success, only to become outcasts, struggling to reclaim their former glory. The film’s central theme of lost innocence, embodied in the enigmatic word “Rosebud,” reflects the shared tragedy of Kane and Welles, forever intertwining their fates in a haunting tale of ambition, triumph, and despair.
Uncontrolled desires and regrets
Orson’s voracious appetite encompassed work, art, food, and romantic conquests. Though modest about his amorous skills, he embodied the quintessential Don Juan: a fleeting touch, a fleeting love. His constant desire for novelty doomed his three marriages from the start, exemplified by his infidelity to Rita Hayworth just a week after their wedding—an act that surely hinted at a deeply-rooted, peculiar compulsion.
Insecurity appeared to permeate much of Orson’s existence, even casting doubt on his own stature as he often donned platform shoes to accentuate his already impressive height. When it came to his insatiable appetite—regularly indulging in three steaks in a single meal—it was neither hunger nor sheer gluttony that drove him. Instead, he seemed to be attempting to satiate an emotional void that food could never truly satisfy. He previously claimed that his physician advised him to refrain from hosting intimate dinners for four people unless there are three additional people there.
Orson Welles Films
Orson expressed regret over the limited number of films he had made, viewing each as a unique experiment. He continued this experimental approach until his final days, but by then, his accomplishments had been eclipsed by his larger-than-life persona and a series of lowbrow TV commercials for whisky and frozen peas. Throughout his life, he dabbled in various pursuits: he was a magician performing in Vegas, a painter, a writer, a newspaper columnist, a radio comedian, a political activist, a documentary-maker, and even staged a ballet.
His versatile interests and refusal to adhere to conventions often conflicted with the demands of the commercial film industry. This creative divergence further limited his opportunities to work on numerous mainstream projects.
Moreover, his insistence on maintaining creative control over his films often led to clashes with studios, producers, and financiers, which in turn hindered his ability to secure consistent funding for his cinematic endeavors. Consequently, many of his projects remained unfinished or struggled to find a suitable platform for distribution.
There you have it. It’s now time to hear from you. Did you notice the parallels between Welles’ life and his most celebrated work, Citizen Kane? And are there any other aspects of his life or career that you find particularly intriguing or poignant? Let us know below.