Despite his wide range of formidable gifts, he became a star not by creating some great work but, quite simply, by scaring the hell out of people. And since this was a time when Hollywood rushed to snap up anyone who’d made a splash in New York, Welles was summoned westward. True to his contrarian nature, he turned down the first few offers, saying that he was not particularly eager to make motion pictures. Why, then, did he agree to become a director? “We’re in the age of film,” he later declared. “Film is at the heart of life.” Whether or not this sentiment was truly uppermost in his thoughts when he refused those initial entreaties, the effect was to make the studios take their bids higher and higher. Consequently, the two-picture deal he struck with RKO in 1939 was unique. Not only did the studio sign him to produce, direct, write, and act in two features, it gave him absolute autonomy: he’d get final cut of his films and wouldn’t have to show them to any studio heads until they were done. The unprecedented contract terms, and the perhaps equally unprecedented hard-to-get act that had precipitated them, produced effusive copy in newspapers across the U.S. They also won him instant enemies in the movie capital. “No other newcomer’s arrival in Hollywood,” reported the Saturday Evening Post at the time, “ever caused so much indignation as Welles’.” His attitude didn’t help. Even his co-writer on Citizen Kane, Herman Mankiewicz is reported to have said, “There but for the grace of God, goes God!” One of his biographers, David Thomson, stated that in Hollywood, “From July 1939 to August 1942, Orson Welles
a tactless, eternally incriminating assault on the notion of the proper ways things were done.” Had anyone ever done such a good job of cutting a public figure while at the same time cutting his own throat?
And so he made Citizen Kane. Welles drew his cast largely from his Mercury Theatre ensemble, later suggesting that his chief strength while filming Kane had been his ignorance. Because he was totally unfamiliar with the process, he did things—with the enthusiastic collaboration of his top-drawer cinematographer Gregg Toland—that supposedly couldn’t be done; deep focus and low-angle shots are only two of the many now familiar techniques that Kane introduced. The main difficulty, however, was not making the film but getting it released. When word got out that Welles was making a picture based on the life of William Randolph Hearst, representatives of the newspaper magnate’s empire threatened not only RKO but the entire movie colony. Welles, of course, had to have realized the old man would not take it lying down. He’d chosen as the subject of his first picture one of the few Americans outside of New York, Washington, and Hollywood who made even bigger headlines than he himself did—and who actually dictated the headlines in the first place.
Welles got more than he bargained for. Hollywood moguls were terrified that Hearst, a noted anti-Semite, would make a national issue out of the Jewish influence in Hollywood, a prospect not to be taken lightly in 1941. So intense was this fear that MGM even offered to buy Kane from RKO and destroy the negatives to ensure the film would never see the dark of a movie theater. But Welles, in what Kane’s editor, Robert Wise, called his “greatest performance,” urged RKO brass not to cave to a tyrant in the midst of a world war against fascism. His plea worked: Citizen Kane went into release. Yet while the film won respect, it lost money—partly because many exhibitors, fearing Hearst, refused to show it. The controversy sapped Welles’ power in Hollywood even as it enhanced his celebrity.
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