Happy 100th Birthday, Orson Welles

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When Orson Welles was just a teenager, he traveled to Ireland. And although it seems improbable (perhaps not, because this is Orson Welles we’re talking about), he decided to audition for the newly-formed Gate Theatre, and was given a role in their upcoming production. He literally walked in off the street and was cast. With no professional experience. As Welles sometimes told it, he unwittingly became the Toast of Dublin. A slight exaggeration, but the reality is that he did appear in a number of plays at The Gate, enjoying a lot of success.

With all of the great stuff in the Orson Welles story, I am particularly taken by the sojourn in Ireland. It’s the stuff dreams are made of. The Gate Theatre was a new operation, formed as an alternative to the all-powerful Abbey Theatre. The Gate would do new works, experimental works. The Gate still exists. The Gate was formed by a man named Micheál MacLiammóir. (He would become a lifelong friend of Orson Welles, playing Iago in Welles’ film Othello.)

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Micheál MacLiammóir, Orson Welles, “Othello”

My father knew everything about MacLiammóir and gave me a copy of an obscure short-lived literary journal from 1950 called “Envoy” which included an essay by MacLiammóir called “Celluloid and the Actor.” Yes, I typed the whole thing out. It is unavailable otherwise. If the copyright-gods want to come after me, so be it. MacLiammóir’s thoughts on the actor’s craft as it relates to the movies is invaluable so I’m happy to break the law in this instance to share it.

But some words on MacLiammóir, because it’s fascinating and perfect that he and Orson Welles, a famous fabulist and tall-tale-teller himself (God love ‘im), would become such good friends. MacLiammóir presented himself as an Irish Catholic, from a long ancestral line of Catholics in Cork. He spoke fluent Irish. He wrote three autobiographies in Irish – in Irish!! – that then had to be translated into English. He devoted himself to culture in Ireland. Like Yeats, he was a great encourager of other artists. However, this Irishman with not one but TWO accents in his Gaelic name, was actually a Protestant Englishman named Alfred Willmore. He had been a child actor, appearing onstage with that most British of humans, Noel Coward, and as a young man he fell in love with Ireland. So much so that he “disappeared” his old identity and cultural heritage and re-invented himself entirely as an Irish person.

My dad and I had many great conversations about him, and the Gate, as well as Welles’ time spent there. With MacLiammóir, as with Welles, lies and truth were blended, and the fantasy was preferable to the reality, and so why not step entirely into the fantasy? These were men who were incredibly productive with their own fantasies. It takes a great imagination, not to mention courage, to walk into an audition as an American teenager in a foreign land. You have to believe that you can actually get through the door, you have to believe that you have a right to be there. It takes balls, yes, but it also takes a belief in the fantasy for yourself that you hold in your own mind. (This is what separated Elvis out from the pack, by the way. It’s not that he was the most talented. It’s that he dreamed the biggest, the highest, and those dreams were AS real to him as the everyday world around him. This is flat-out just not the case with most normal people, who accept limits as part of reality. Dreamers do not accept limits.)

So. Orson Welles, a precocious and bold teenager, who had already had much success in his high school years, appearing on radio shows with his own adaptation of a Sherlock Holmes story, and basically taking over the drama club, strolled into the audition, unannounced, unheralded. No one who was there forgot that day.

MacLiammóir’s stories of Welles’ first audition for them are laugh-out-loud funny. MacLiammóir, in one of his autobiographies (he wrote several, as I mentioned) describes being told “There’s an American teenager in the lobby … he says he wants to audition … what should I tell him?” … This “American teenager” claimed he was a lead actor at the Guild Theatre in America (which, of course, was totally untrue). Welles was basically standing out there demanding an audition. MacLiammóir said sure, send the kid in, and in walked Orson Welles.

MacLiammóir describes what happened next:

‘Is this all the light you can give me?’ he said in a voice like a regretful oboe. We hadn’t given him any at all yet, so that was settled, and he began. It was an astonishing performance, wrong from beginning to end but with all the qualities of fine acting tearing their way through a chaos of inexperience. His diction was practically perfect, his personality, in spite of his fantastic circus antics, was real and varied; his sense of passion, of evil, of drunkenness, of tyranny, of a sort of demoniac authority was arresting; a preposterous energy pulsated through everything he did. One wanted to bellow with laughter, yet the laughter died on one’s lips. One wanted to say, ‘Now, now, really, you know,’ but something stopped the words from coming. And that was because he was real to himself, because it was something more to him than a show, more than the mere inflated exhibitionism one might have suspected from his previous talk, something much more.

Thrilling.

I’ve written longer posts for Welles in the past. I adore him. I adore his singular story. But today, I thought I’d focus on that audition for MacLiammóir because, honestly, so much came from it. Not just the gigs at the Gate. But a confidence as well as what I perceive to be a re-assurance from the universe (in Welles’ mind, anyway) that his fantasies were actually real and valid. He could already see it all in his own mind. The situation very well could have turned out differently, if it wasn’t MacLiammóir sitting out there in the darkness watching. If it had been somebody else, Welles would never have gotten through the door. If it had been somebody else, they may have watched that outrageous audition, and actually said out loud, “Now, now, really, you know” as MacLiammóir reported that he thought, but then stopped himself from saying.

Because MacLiammóir saw the flaws in the acting, saw the green-ness in the technique, saw the inexperience and pomposity and all that. It must have been completely ridiculous what was going on up on that stage. But MacLiammóir saw something else as well. He saw the fantasy at work behind all of it. He saw the boy’s dreams for himself, and how very very real those dreams were. He saw that the kid before him was “real to himself,” and let me tell you: that’s not just rare in actor-land, but rare in humanity in general. MacLiammóir saw it all. And he was not wrong.

Happy birthday, Orson Welles!

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Eartha Kitt, Micheál MacLiammóir, Orson Welles

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16 Responses to Happy 100th Birthday, Orson Welles

  1. april says:

    If you haven’t seen it, you should check out “Me and Orson Welles” — it played at Ebertfest a few years ago, I think before you started attending. It was made by Richard Linklater, and stars Zac Efron and Claire Danes as members of the repertory group Welles assembled at the Mercury Theater early in his career. The young Welles is played by Christian McKay, who was marvelous. Didn’t sound all that great in the program blurb, but turned out to be one of those films that you leave wondering how it could possibly have not been a big hit. There’s tons of behind-the-scenes theater stuff, too, that I imagine you’ll be able to appreciate even more than I did.

    If I’m remembering correctly, this film was shown the first year that Roger was unable to speak, and the schedule that year also included the version of “Citizen Kane” with Roger’s scene-by-scene commentary, in part as a way of allowing his voice to remain part of the festival. That, too, is amazing, BTW, and definitely worth seeking out if you’ve not already seen it. In the panel discussion that followed, we learned that one of the things Ebert was known for were his infamous “Citizen Kane” viewing sessions in which any participant could yell “Stop” at any point, and the film would be stopped to discuss a particular shot or scene in detail. As you can imagine, these sessions ran for many hours, as every nuance of the film was dissected. Can you imagine how much fun one of those would be?

    • sheila says:

      April!! Wow – I didn’t know Me and Orson Welles played at Ebertfest! I love that movie. That whole period in Welles’ life – the New York theatre period – with the Julius Caesar production and the radio show – is just fascinating to me.

      And amazing about the Citizen Kane commentary track!! That, and Ebert’s commentary track to Casablanca are high watermarks of the form. He is so enthusiastic but also so knowledgeable about what is going on on the screen. At the same time, he still gets swept away by the movie – If I recall correctly, during the famous “dueling anthems” scene in Casablanca, Ebert falls silent. He just has to watch it again. It gets him every time.

      I have always been so sorry that I never got my act together to attend one of Ebert’s Citizen Kane master classes. Yes: must have been AMAZING.

  2. Rinaldo says:

    This was especially timely for me because in the past year I’ve caught up with the two existing volumes of Simon Callow’s Welles biography. (I just enjoy Callow’s writing in general. His Laughton bio is also excellent, with that some professional-level understanding.) Always lots to consider about Orson Welles, and I appreciate your thoughts.

    • sheila says:

      Rinaldo – Good to hear from you!

      I love Callow’s writing too! I love the Laughton biography so much. I love how in-depth he goes – especially into acting process – something that most biographers honestly have zero idea how to do. Most biographies of actors are not interested in what I am interested in – which is the work and how the actor thinks about the work, how his/her creative process operates. Callow is all about that. I love it!!

      I think the Welles biographies are just titanic achievements and I am still waiting (tick tock, Callow!!) for the third one. Such enjoyable reads.

      • Rinaldo says:

        Another enjoyable read (or maybe I should use the plural) by Callow is his My Life in Pieces, which very likely you know already. It’s a collection of his occasional “pieces” for magazines and newspapers over the years, mostly about actors and acting, in chronological order with a little connective narrative that makes it add up to an informal autobiography as well.

        • sheila says:

          Rinaldo – I haven’t read that! It sounds great!! Thanks for the recommendation!

          I remember in an acting class once the teacher showed us a series of lectures Callow did on acting in Restoration Comedy (one of the hardest “genres” for modern actors to step into). They were amazing – I’m not sure if they’re on Youtube, or what exactly the lectures were a part of – but they were phenomenal.

  3. sheila says:

    Busy day today, gonna be gone all day, but I’m going to watch that lecture again tonight – looking forward to it!

  4. Paula says:

    Fascinating stories. The bonding of famous fabulists and tall-tale tellers.

    • sheila says:

      Yes! I guess it takes one to know one. And to understand that that fantasy was worth devoting yourself to – only dreamers really get that.

  5. Desirae says:

    Someone may have mentioned already, but this piece got linked on the Toast (neat site if you aren’t familiar with it):

    http://the-toast.net/2015/05/07/link-roundup-325/

  6. phil says:

    Hi, Sheila.
    100!
    What would I give him on his 100th?
    A box of paints.
    He tells Bogdanovich in ‘This is Orson Welles’, of his hungry youth in Ireland traveling by donkey and cart, and painting as his First Love.

    • sheila says:

      He was definitely an excellent artist – his costume sketches and set sketches for Mercury Theatre productions are wonderful!

  7. sharyn says:

    The handy dandy list o links:

    — INTERVIEWS —

    War of the Worlds Apology (1938)
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uuEGiruAFSw

    Welles Meets Wells (1940, in San Antonio!)
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nUdghSMTXsU

    BBC’s TALK (1955)
    You need to get iPlayer set up to stream this one
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/…/p00nw…/press-conference-orson-welles…

    Belgian TV (1958)
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=afkfH54ba-Q

    “The Paris Interview” With Bernard Braden (1960)
    There’s a great high quality DVD of this. You can rent it at Vulcan.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sd4mMmrpIB0

    BBC’s MONITOR (1960)
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oQYazeJA-Oo

    BBC’s MONITOR (1963)
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=smMa38CZCSU

    ORSON WELLES IN SPAIN (1966)
    This is shot by the Maysles Bros!!!
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z3gcp9-_bfI

    Peter Bogdanovich audio tapes (1969-72)
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1LnuQZ6VD_Y

    David Frost (1970)
    Only a clip is up on youtube but the full transcript is also available.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IjPsnfysrp8
    http://www.wellesnet.com/orson-welles-as-a-special-guest-o…/

    Dick Cavett (1970)
    This is the best! Only various clips are collected here but this is on a DVD and can be rented at good ol Vulcan Video.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch…

    Michael Parkinson (1974)
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6dAGcorF1Vo

    AFI Lifetime Achievement Award (1975)
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oXJnxClGamA

    FILMING OTHELLO (1978)
    A full feature documentary put together by Welles! We watched this at the theater but here it is for anyone who didn’t make it but wants to check it out.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fvqeQt8aLnU

    Dinah Shore (1979)
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V421bF698sA

    THE ORSON WELLES SHOW (1979)
    Welles as host, not subject. So good.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WlpAE2Sf3QU

    FILMING THE TRIAL (1981)
    This was the first bit shot in the hopes of completing another project like FILMING OTHELLO. Unfortunately Welles wasn’t able to ever actually make it.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RbUe-bM6bXg

    ARENA – THE ORSON WELLES STORY (1982)
    Absolutely one of the best Welles interviews but it looks like sadly it got pulled from youtube recently. I’m uploading a file of it that I have to vimeo now. Hopefully it can stay up on there for awhile.

    Parisian Film School (1982)
    https://www.youtube.com/watch…

    Merv Griffin (1985, October 9, the day of his death)
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YZEWy–VsBQ

    — TELEVISION —

    ORSON WELLES’ SKETCHBOOK (1955)
    Orson Welles gives six 15 minute talks and does some doodles! These are so god damn good.
    https://www.youtube.com/playlist…

    AROUND THE WORLD: “Revisiting Vienna” (1955)
    The whole AROUND THE WORLD WITH ORSON WELLES series is available on Fandor, including the Vienna episode which we didn’t screen at the Ritz.
    https://www.fandor.com/films/around_the_world

    AROUND THE WORLD: “Tragedy of Lurs” (1955)/THE DOMINICI AFFAIR (2000)
    There was one episode of AROUND THE WORLD that Welles started to shoot but never finished about an unsolved crime in France. In the 90s, French filmmaker Christophe Cognet tried to flesh it out and added a whole bunch of context and further developments. No english on this link, but there’s a tape of the full thing at Vulcan.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vGzFzqQfI9Y

    THE FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH (1958)
    This is the pilot of an unrealized anthology series. A lot of proto-F FOR FAKE “film essay” style is being developed here. We ran this at the Ritz but check it out if you missed it. Sadly a supposedly similarly stylized film Welles did in 1956 called CAMILLE, THE NAKED LADY AND THE MUSKETEERS is considered lost.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=maDTnpfEglo

    VIVA ITALIA aka PORTRAIT OF GINA (1958)
    A TV doc Welles did on Gina Lollobrigida!
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C7R5CBG5rJM

    NELLA TERRA DI DON CHISCIOTTE aka IN THE LAND OF DON QUIXOTE (1964)
    While working on his DON QUIXOTE project Welles did this travelogue thing for Spanish TV to earn a little extra cash. Another of his projects that’s at once totally Wellesian and completely unlike anything else he ever did. It’s just images and music, no narration! Too bad the quality on this upload is bad. You can find bootlegs other places though.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vtnka6qp-cw

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