By the age of 28, Orson Welles had revolutionized American theater (with his “voodoo” “Macbeth” and anti-fascist “Julius Caesar”); terrified the nation (with his 1938 “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast); made what many still consider the greatest of all films (“Citizen Kane”); made another film that in some ways is even better (“The Magnificent Ambersons”); and married the most desired woman in the world (Rita Hayworth).
“The way I figure is you’ve got only so much luck,” he’s heard to say in Chuck Workman’s smart, highly entertaining documentary “Magician: The Astonishing Life & Work of Orson Welles,” “and it doesn’t matter when it happens. And I was incredibly lucky.”
Yes, he was, and even more incredibly talented. That frontloading of luck did matter, though, and Welles spent the rest of his life (he died in 1985, at 70) showing both how right and wrong F. Scott Fitzgerald was about there being no second acts in American lives. Welles had multiple acts, some of them astonishing (his noir to end all noirs, “Touch of Evil”; his Falstaff adaptation, “Chimes at Midnight”), some of them astonishing in a very different way (his Paul Masson ads, his “Dean Martin Celebrity Roast” ubiquity). Like another American original, Elvis Presley, Welles managed to be both genius and joke.
It was a life, and career, as overwhelming in abundance as Welles’s own girth in the final few decades of his life. Workman clearly reveres Welles, but he’s never reverent. One sign of that is his willingness to acknowledge his subject’s Falstaffian figure. Most of the many film clips Workman includes are from Welles’s own work, but there’s also one of John Candy imitating him to devastating effect in a Billy Crystal skit. And among the numerous talking heads is LA celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck, who fondly recalls the sight of Welles tucking in: “It was like watching someone make love to the food.”
There are unexpected things in “Magician,” such as Puck’s presence. Welles’s first screen test, from 1937, and an appearance on “I Love Lucy” are others. But even the expected things, such as the numerous Welles clips, are consistently unexpected. That is, even something as familiar as Charles Foster Kane’s death scene, with the shattered snow globe, or Harry Lime’s “cuckoo clock” quip, in “The Third Man,” retain a freshness and torque that remain uniquely Wellesian. Yes, Carol Reed directed “The Third Man,” not Welles. But have you ever noticed how Lime’s arrival utterly transforms the movie? Welles was a kind of force field who altered whatever space he was in: on screen, on stage, even at a celebrity roast.
That’s no less true of interviews. Workman is best known for his brilliantly edited montages of film excerpts on Academy Awards broadcasts or in his own Oscar-winning short, “Precious Images.” He’s taken what must be a couple of dozen interviews, or more, given by Welles over the course of four decades and chopped them up for maximum effect throughout the documentary. As a result, Welles the man, no less than Welles the actor or Welles the filmmaker, is a real presence — and an active one. “This is one of the great mysteries,” we hear Welles biographer Simon Callow say at one point, “why this extraordinarily smart guy was outwitted by so much less remarkable and intelligent people so often.” Workman cuts instantly to Welles uttering a single: “Money.” It’s a call-and-response worthy of the song-and-dance number in “Citizen Kane.”
In another of those interviews, Welles says, “I’ve spent most of my life not quite unpacked.” That’s exactly right, and luggage was the least of it. Perhaps the most astounding thing about this truly astounding character (to call Welles a man seems too limiting) is how a sense of unrealized possibility itself became a kind of achievement, one that rivaled what he actually accomplished. It’s a cautionary tale, like “Macbeth” and “Othello” and “King Lear,” each of whom Welles played. It’s also, like them, one of the great tragedies.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.