Friday, November 2, 2012

Orson Welles: Work as an Expression of Life

Ladies and gentlemen, we interrupt our program of dance music to bring you a special bulletin from the Intercontinental Radio News. At twenty minutes before eight, Central time, Professor Farrell of the Mount Jennings Observatory, Chicago, Illinois, reports observing several explosions of incandescent gas, occurring at regular intervals on the planet Mars. The spectroscope indicates the gas to be hydrogen and moving towards the earth with enormous velocity

So began what is probably the greatest Halloween scare of all time, the radio drama “The War of the Worlds,” broadcast in 1938, 74 years ago tonight. Directed and narrated by 23-year-old actor and future filmmaker Orson Welles, the episode was adapted from the H. G. Wells novel of the same name (it would later be adapted on film a couple of times, including a 2005 Steven Spielberg version starring Tom Cruise).

The show was presented in such realistic fashion that more than a million (by some estimates) Americans tuning in were convinced that an actual invasion from Mars was underway. There is some question as to whether the ensuing panic was actually as widespread as the media reported at the time, but one thing is certain: the extraordinary event propelled the brilliant and audacious Orson Welles to fame.

A creative force of nature, Welles went on, at the ridiculously young age of 26, to co-write, produce, direct, and star in Citizen Kane, widely considered the best American film of all time. Indeed, Welles himself has been named the greatest film director of all time – The Magnificent Ambersons, A Touch of Evil, and Shakespearean works are among his other films – and even listed as one of the most highly regarded actors of all time.

He also acquired a reputation, as geniuses often do, as a difficult egotist. But biographer Joseph McBride notes that the legend of Welles as “a gruff, vain vulgarian who had no work ethic” is a myth. “Welles had a proclivity,” McBride writes in Whatever Happened to Orson Welles?, “for continually reworking not only his unfinished films but even those that had already been released.” Why? One acquaintance answers, “Because he loved to work… and because for him all work was work-in-progress.”

In a 1960 interview filmed in his Paris hotel room and excerpted on the wonderful Brain Pickings website, Welles was asked, “In terms of being an adventurer and being an artist, would you say that you live to work or work to live?” His reply, as Brain Pickings’ Maria Popova notes, “embodies the secret of finding purpose and doing what you love”: “I think that working is part of life. I don’t know how to distinguish between the two,” Welles pondered. “The two things aren’t separate in my mind… Work is an expression of life for me.”

The final years of Welles’ life, McBride says, were “a saga of untiring work, dedication, creativity, and indomitable courage in the face of overwhelming obstacles placed before him by a society that tragically undervalues its great artists.” Even at the moment of a fatal heart attack in 1985, Orson Welles was seated before a typewriter on which he had been creating a new screenplay.

“If you want a happy ending,” Welles once said, “that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.” And his own story ended doing what he loved.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 10/30/12)