orson welles the actor

A critical look at the film acting career of Orson Welles

"I never said actors were cattle, I just said they should be treated like cattle"   Alfred Hitchcock

"The most important element of a film is the actors.   You must understand them, help them, cherish them.  Everything depends on them"    Orson Welles


There are four categories of actor-directors in the Cinema: 1) directors who appear in their own films and subsequently those of others, out of curiosity or expediency (Martin Scorcese, Francois Truffaut, Eric Von Stroheim) 2) actors who turn their hand to directing (Clint Eastwood, Robert Redford, Takeshi Kitano); 3) character actors who direct their own performances (Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Woody Allen) and 4) …Orson Welles.

Welles pursued the two roles throughout his career with equal intensity. He was a director from the beginning. His origins in performance were in the theatre and from his early teens he was directing and performing plays at school. By the time of his debut in the Cinema, Welles had already directed ground-breaking productions of Jules Verne's Around The World in Eighty Days and an all black Macbeth. He also directed several radio productions with his own "Mercury Theatre on the Air", including the legendary adaptation of H G Wells' War of the Worlds.

Yet the majority of people view Welles as an actor. This may illustrate the lack of widespread appreciation of his work but it is also a reflection of the power of his presence on screen. Indeed he is sometimes thought of as a great actor, despite the fact that most people would struggle, beyond Kane and Lime, to name one of his roles. His personality on film was so dominant and larger-than-life that he left a lasting impression on audiences with sometimes little more than a five minute appearance. (All too often in his career, this is the most screen time he would be offered). When people hired Welles, they hired the phenomenon, the star, the presence (the voice) but not the actor. Occasionally, those who afforded him the opportunity to shine were handsomely repaid, but for reasons we hope to explore here, his acting career, on paper at least, fell considerably short of its potential.

the voice

First and foremost Welles was a voice. Like a vintage claret, warm, deep and luxurious but robust and sharp, his range enabled him to modulate effortlessly from a gentle murmur to a thunderous rage. First theatre, then in particular radio, were the natural outlets for this remarkable talent. Throughout his career, this most distinctive and recognisable asset was put to use narrating over 35 feature films and documentaries, not to mention innumerable television series, both fiction and non-fiction. Like Brando, Burton, Mason and other distinctive voice talents, he added instant gravitas to any project he narrated (outstanding examples included King of Kings, Duel in the Sun and The Vikings); and he was equally at home with humour (the voice of Rikki-Tikki-Tavi; narrating Mel Brooks' History of the World Part I).

It is no coincidence then that on screen his most famous performances are built around memorable monologues: the unforgettable hustings speech in Citizen Kane; the cuckoo clock speech in The Third Man; the delicious story telling of Mr Arkadin; and in perhaps his greatest performance of all, as the defence lawyer Jonathan Wilks in Richard Fleischer's Compulsion (right), the clinical courtroom defence speech - a complete tour de force, in which Welles uses every conceivable technique of speech and diction to produce the most compelling of arguments for the indefensible. Paradoxically, this was one of the few famous passages Welles delivered which was not entirely written by him - his performance was based on the character of America's most famous lawyer, Clarence Darrow.

Elsewhere, as Father Mapple in Huston's Moby Dick, he threatens to steal the entire film before the boat has even set sail. His sermon delivered to the sailors was, fittingly for a graduate of theatre and live radio, recorded all in one single shot. Welles' work was over after a day's shooting, which was a real sign of things to come. Back off screen, his virtuoso narration for The Magnificent Ambersons is so distinctive that the narrator becomes a character in the story.

Accordingly, Welles' own films are framed by the machinery of vocal sound: microphones, telephones, loudspeakers, radios, recorded newsreels and recorded voices figure strongly throughout his work (think about Kane's political rally; Arkadin's impotent anger when left stranded on the end of a phone at the climax of Mr Arkadin; and in Touch of Evil, the extended sequence where Quinlan's deputy wears a wire, and is pursued by Vargas with the microphone, who struggles to keep within range). Wellesian drama comes first from the voice and secondly from the movement of bodies. In that sense despite (and perhaps because of) his imposing shape, Welles was far from what we would call a "physical" actor.

the nose

The greatest paradox of Welles acting career is that behind this dominant, imposing, all-encompassing presence was a nervous, self-conscious actor who loathed his own appearance and was prone to stage fright. His particular obsession was his nose, which he once said "had not grown one millimetre since infancy". As a consequence an anthology of his screen performances would be peppered with a succession of false noses, disguises, heavy make-up and fat suits. From the great performances (Compulsion, Chimes at Midnight, Touch of Evil) to the appalling (Chabrol's La Decade Prodigieuse, where his false nose was much too long and he seemed permanently ill at ease) it is a rare Welles appearance that doesn't feature a disguise of some description. The very opposite of naturalistic acting, Welles' style belonged to the demonstrative school of a James Cagney or Lon Chaney, so the masking was a natural extension of this approach.

Welles occasionally arrived on film sets on the first day of shooting in full make up and costume so that the cast and crew could only see the character he was playing, not the actor. Sacha Guitry remembers being mesmerised by the apparent arrival of Benjamin Franklin on the set of his historical drama Si Versailles M'était Conté (Welles had brought his makeup artist with him from London).

Jeanne Moreau (who played Doll Tearsheet in Chimes at Midnight) told a story about how Welles was so petrified of shooting the love scene between Doll and Falstaff that he persistently put it back within the shooting schedule, citing numerous lame excuses (including that he could not find his make-up - he had hidden it under his bed).

Welles as Rochester in Jane Eyre

More humorously still, on his return to Hollywood from a long exile in Europe, during the shooting of Touch of Evil, Welles threw a party for old "showbusiness friends". He arrived late to the party as shooting had been delayed and he was still in full Hank Quinlan get-up: fat suit, unshaven, sweaty, repulsive make up. An unnamed guest approached him with the sparkling comment: "Orson, you look great." This was one of the stories Welles was fond of telling to illustrate how he and Hollywood never really got on.

Whilst masks have been part of the acting tradition since the Ancient Greeks, Welles took the approach a little too far. This was part of the reason why his young career (the period when he was still a striking man and before his obesity started to take over) almost entirely bypassed the "handsome lead" stage. Aside from the young Kane (which whilst spirited, was eclipsed by his towering work as the older Kane) his only young lead role was as the hapless sailor Michael O'Hara in The Lady from Shanghai, complete with his natural nose (this was one of his most feeble performances - Welles was so uncomfortable in the role that his character wore a permanent frown). But the principal reason why Welles was never a leading man was because of his personality: he had to play the king.

the king

Welles played King Lear at 36 for Peter Brook, in a filmed production. It is almost impossible to imagine a modern actor essaying the role at that age. From his teenage years he was a "king" actor, and his early screen career saw him excel in great dominant character roles : Rochester, Cagliostro, Kane, Cesar Borgia, Harry Lime. Remarkably these were all played by Welles in his 20s. His tremendous charisma and dominance of the screen made him appear mature beyond his years - his precocity in real life translated perfectly into his performance style.

Roles like Hamlet, Hal, Romeo, even had he played them at 14 would not have been right for him. Louis XVIII, King Lear, Zeus, Saul, Macbeth (right), Long John Silver, Tiresias, God: these were roles Welles was born for and took on screen (they were also understandably the only sort of roles he was offered).

Any regret Welles felt at having bypassed the first stage of a young actor's career was as nothing compared with the struggles he faced elsewhere. Welles admitted that had he been able to direct more projects himself, such "king" roles would have been more central to their films' plots, as opposed to the cameo appearances to which they were often reduced.

the baggage

From 1950 onwards Welles' screen acting career is characterised by one sobering constant - the need to make as much money as possible in the shortest possible time, thus enabling him to commit the time to, and fund, his own directing projects. This was the bottom line as far as Welles' film choices were concerned. His CV is uneven and difficult to categorise as a result. He became as famous for cameos and narration as for principal appearances, not to mention TV shows, adverts etc. His ability to ignite a film in a single scene was valuable currency for directors and consequently for himself.

He did impose an unusual condition on his appearances, which was that he would always re-write every scene he featured in; and on numerous occasions, he directed them as well. Any student of Welles watching the subway scenes featuring Harry Lime (left) from The Third Man can easily recognise his influence on the cameraman Robert Krasker and of course the famous cuckoo clock speech is entirely by Welles.

The most extreme example of his cinematic control freakery is when Welles took over the direction of a low-budget exploitation flick based on the second rate pulp novel "Badge of Evil". Having been hired as the "heavy" on what would later be called Touch of Evil, the film's star, Charlton Heston, suggested to the studio that Welles was "a pretty good director, you know" so not having yet hired a director, they reluctantly hired Welles to direct as well (Welles insisted the script be jettisoned entirely and re-wrote the whole thing).

Michael Winner likes to tell and re-tell (as if it had never happened to anyone else) the story of Welles turning up for shooting on I'll Never Forget Whatsisname and announcing that he had re-written all of his scenes (whatever one thinks of Welles' egotistical habit, one cannot blame him on that occasion).

Legend also incorrectly has it that Welles was always deliberately awful in films that were not his own. Not true. Whilst he often cared little about the value of the project he was involved in (often with good reason) he was always completely professional. He never "sleepwalked" through films and if anything, occasionally gave too much of himself (his worst performances are examples of overacting, such as in Fleischer's Crack In The Mirror, where in two roles, Welles serves up two thick slices of ham). Better directors were often better served, but minor films like Trouble in the Glen and The Long Hot Summer also feature delectable Welles performances, like diamonds in the rough.

For someone with such a patchy CV it is worth noting how many great directors Welles worked with: Henry Hathaway, Carol Reed, Nicholas Ray, Sergei Bondartchuk, Fred Zinnemman, John Huston, Robert Siodmak, Richard Fleischer…almost enough to neutralise the appearance on his CV of Matt Cimber, Michael Winner, Herbert Wilcox and Fernandino Baldi whose desultory product he also graced for a modest sum. It is unclear to what extent the aforementioned masters hired Welles out of respect or even pity, or simply in appreciation of his enormous talent, which the rest of Hollywood would never accord him.

Right: Paul Newman and Welles in The Long Hot Summer

Ultimately Welles' compulsive dominance of proceedings may have counted against him. Too many producers simply felt that he was not worth the trouble of hiring for more than a few days shooting. Looking back on special moments from his career, such as Othello's closing speech in Welles' own Othello; Lime's first appearance in the street light in The Third Man; his disbelieving, childlilke Falstaff, faced with Hal's rejection in Chimes at Midnight; his statuesque diseased Wolesey in A Man for all Seasons or even his heroic dignity and humour in The Muppet Movie, the sensation is that perhaps one of the greatest screen actors of all time, through his self-consciousness, his overpowering personality and the baggage that he brought with him, missed out on his rightful place in the pantheon.


Welles' Ten Greatest Performances

Other Notable Welles Performances

Entire Acting Filmography