The Most Successful Person in Hollywood
How do you measure success? In Hollywood, box office reigns supreme followed distantly by awards and recognition from critics and peers. Odds are, if you were asked to select the most successful person in Hollywood history, Orson Welles would not top your list. Welles spent much of his career obese and running from debt. His financial woes forced him to accept work that was beneath him just to cash a paycheck. But this article from the November 2002 issue of Movieline magazine argues that none of that matters. Welles’ legacy lives on and that may be the most important measure of success there is.
He owned no company that had a household name. He lived in rented properties that were often beyond his means. His business affairs were forever in a state of such chaos that there are still film projects that can hardly be retrieved from confused ownership. In his lifetime he had a half share in one Oscar, but he died alone and enormous in a small house in Los Angeles. There were stories told about how he had once been so immense that he became trapped in his own car and the vehicle had to be cut open.
He had been mighty and promising once, to such an extent that he was brought to Hollywood when he was not much more than an arrogant kid, without experience or dues-paying credentials, and was then told, more or less, that he could do whatever he chose to do. Such shocking liberties earned him the envy and hostility of so many filmmakers that it was no surprise to see him turned from boy genius into a figure of fun as his early films failed to press the only button that Hollywood understood–the one that spits out tickets for admission. So he became a warning example of what happened to those who were so over-confident that they saw fit to defy the Hollywood conventions.
Welles went to Europe; he wandered. He had a movie star wife once–Rita Hayworth–and lovers, but he lost them all, and became so large that it was hard to see him as much more than a wistful onlooker whenever sexual glory was involved. He was “reduced” to appearing on afternoon television shows, spinning showbiz stories and doing non-strenuous magic tricks. He played stupid small parts in inane big pictures. He was a TV spokesman for jug wine and junk foods. There seemed to be no depth to which the man would not sink.
He was also his own worst enemy, a man of such wit, impatience and pride that he could not sit patiently, talking to the people with money, flattering them, letting them have their foolish hour, so that they would give him some of their money. Instead, he made fun of them, he was rude, he said they were hardly worthy of his time. This was a matter of simple fact, but it provoked the business into saying that he was impetuous, self-centered, self-destructive, unreliable and a bad investment. All those opinions were sound, of course, and part of the waywardness often found in genius.
Add it all up, and it may seem implausible that the man is even remembered, let alone that I should propose him as the model of success. But then consider this: in 1962, when the British movie magazine, Sight & Sound, polled critics from all over the world on the 10 best films ever made, Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane came top. And top again, in 1972, in 1982, in 1992 and now in 2002. That is real glory.
The men and women who ran the Hollywood that outlawed Orson Welles have passed on; they are slipping into oblivion. Their mansions change hands, along with their companies, their mistresses and their art collections. Even their solemn charities get bought up by larger corporations. These temporary “giants” grow back into their proper smallness. And Orson Welles’s ghastly bloated size falls away as later generations treasure his film– the first film, perhaps, that dared to be independent. Los Angeles likes to tell itself that nothing lasts, so culture’s panorama is as unstable as the urban landscape and the new buildings. But that is only the polite convenience for a business that makes so much work that does not last.
A day will come when William Randolph Hearst and Louis B. Mayer are hardly known, and when Orson Welles will be familiar to every child, as the handsome, wicked charmer who played the young Kane.
What’s that, you’re saying? Citizen Kane was just a one-shot wonder? Very well, but suppose that Kane did not exist, then think of this: in all those polls, The Magnificent Ambersons would come first, despite the fact that its owners were so bored by it that they dumped some of its most precious parts off the Pacific coast.
Not fair, you say? No one can know what the full-length Ambersons would have been like? Very well, then think of this: Touch of Evil, Chimes at Midnight (both of which won many votes in the 2002 poll); or Macbeth, Othello and Mr. Arkadin; or Harry Lime in The Third Man. Or the stage shows, from the all-black Macbeth to a version of Moby Dick done in London.
And one thing more. Orson Welles knew immense frustration and dismay; he knew he was despised and mocked; he felt the closeness of creditors. But he had a grand time, and he loved nothing so much as a crowded, talkative table at dinner. He did love his dinner and laughed at ideas of diets. No doubt he’s laughing now to see Hollywood like a desolate Xanadu after the great man has gone.
So just as you should not fall for the American movie’s description of happiness, don’t fall for Hollywood’s code of success.