Entry #1: Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane and F For Fake
by Nathan Rabin
First and Last is an ongoing column exploring remarkable filmmakers at the beginning and ends of their careers.
It is altogether fitting that Orson Welles’ career as a movie star begins at an end. Welles’ onscreen life begins not just with a death, but with perhaps the most legendary, enigmatic and discussed death in the history of film: the death of Charles Foster Kane, newspaper magnate, titan of industry, and archetypal Great, Greatly Flawed Man. It is a death inveterately wrapped up in a word (Rosebud), and a mystery that continues to haunt us.
1941’s Citizen Kane begins at the end, then proceeds to unpack the film’s entire plot over the course of a single epic newsreel chronicling the impossibly epic life of a man of Shakespearean depth and richness. Welles doesn’t just give away the ending. He gives away the beginning, and the middle, and all the parts in between as well.
In lesser hands, this might represent an exposition dump of astonishing length and shamelessness. But Welles, that sneaky trickster magician of cinema, is showing the audience that he can reveal just about everything, while still retaining a potent air of mystery at the film’s core.
Welles is illustrating how the drama and poetry and sadness and magnificence of a man’s life comes not from the facts and figures found in newspaper articles and screamingly hyperbolic newsreels but rather in the emotions and memories and sorrow of the people he leaves behind. On a grudgingly literal level, the film is driven by the question, “What is Rosebud?” On a psychological level, the question is another of those five Ws of Journalism school lore, albeit of a much different variety: “Why Rosebud?” Why, in his dying moments, did this great and greatly troubled man’s troubled mind cough up this particular word?
It’s a melodramatic, pulpy narrative device that embarrassed Welles a bit in his later life but when Citizen Kane was made Welles was known to much of the public as the sonorous voice of superstar radio superhero The Shadow, so he wasn’t exactly averse to playing to a mass audience. He was a consummate entertainer as well as an artist, a man who knew how to play to the cheap seats as well as the critics.
In many ways, Citizen Kane seems to anticipate Welles’ own career, and not just because Welles spends the vast majority of the movie playing a version of Kane who is decades older than the actor playing him. We are introduced to Charles Foster Kane as one of the great men of the 20th century, one of those larger than life movers and shakers who define an era. Yet we’re also introduced to Kane as a great failure, a man whose enormous wealth and influence never led to happiness, only pain and loneliness.
Almost from the beginning, we see Kane through both the prism of both extraordinary success and tremendous failure. We see him as the archetypal man who gains the world but loses his soul, who builds a pleasure palace on a scope destined to enrage the Gods themselves yet turns a palace into a prison because he is as incapable of happiness as he is of truly loving another person as his equal.
We see Welles’ career in much the same way. He has the misfortune of being as known for his epic personal and professional failings as he is for his remarkable successes. Charles Foster Kane left behind an unfinished palace as his sad legacy. Welles’ legacy consists of the films he made and released, but also of the many, many films he started working on but never finished, including versions of Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness and Don Quixote.
The genius of Welles and Kane lie in their Herculean over-reaching, in their belief that a genius with a ferocious will can achieve any goddamned thing in the world they want, and there’s nothing small-minded simps and sycophants can do to stop them. The tragedy of both Welles and Kane is that there’s no will so ferocious and no genius so extraordinary that simps and sycophants can’t sabotage it.
Welles was a newcomer to cinema when Citizen Kane became the gold standard of cinematic debuts, the Citizen Kane of first films, as it were. But by that point he had already conquered the fields of theater and radio. On Citizen Kane, Welles didn’t just brilliantly use tools unavailable to him on radio or on the stage, like editing and cinematography. No, he revolutionized those fields as well. When editing and imagery interplay the way they do throughout Citizen Kane, the result is a kind of magic. At his core, Welles was a magician, a man who made impossible things happen (or appear to happen) with a wink and a smile.
Citizen Kane is blessed with the crazy audacity of youth. Welles was too inexperienced in this wonderful, crazy-making new field to realize that you just don’t make movies like Citizen Kane, particularly the first time out. He stubbornly didn’t realize that you’re not supposed to dramatically expand the vocabulary of film in myriad ways over the course of just a single movie. He didn’t realize that even the most brilliant twenty-something in the world (and Welles definitely was a contender for that title), isn’t supposed to create a portrait of a man in full to rival the deepest and most profound tragedies of his beloved Shakespeare.
Because he didn’t know well enough not to, Welles changed everything with Citizen Kane, a movie that is perpetually in a hurry, forever skipping forward and backwards in time and shifting perspectives as it tries to get to the bottom not just of one complicated and troubled man, but of mankind as a whole.
Citizen Kane is great Art but it’s equally great Entertainment and in Citizen Kane, as in F For Fake, Welles’ ambitions don’t stop with entertaining audiences. No, that was just the bare minimum. He also wanted to dazzle audiences and surprise audiences and shock audiences and seduce audiences and wow audiences. Welles had such a potent connection to his audience that it’s both strange and a goddmaned shame that something as trivial as money could have come between Welles and a public he only wanted to entertain.
Welles was a consummate entertainer, on a personal and professional level. That was true of Citizen Kane and it’s equally true of his final finished motion picture, the exquisitely playful 1975 cinematic essay F For Fake. Welles is no longer a beautiful young man inhabiting the body and mind of an old man. Nope, Welles was an old man by the time he made F For Fake, a man who had lived many lives, but if Citizen Kane benefits from a gravitas far beyond Welles’ years, F For Fake has a wonderfully youthful spirit of impish anarchy.
Part of the funky personal appeal of F For Fake comes from the sense that watching Welles perform for the cameras—and he never stops performing for a second, despite the film theoretically being a documentary—here is not terribly dissimilar from sharing a few bottles of wine with Welles over lunch and hearing him gleefully unpack anecdotes from his treasure trove of colorful tales, some of which might even have been true.
Welles began his film career with a thunderingly ambitious magnum opus, a big film about a big man from a big man. He ended his directorial debut with a movie whose timeless appeal emerges in no small part from its modest scope, in the sense that Welles is favoring us with a goofy, giddy little lark of a movie, a playful goof from a man who has been kicked around by show-business and life but retained full power over his remarkable gifts.
F For Fake is a film about great men, men so great that lesser artists, and greater charlatans, are able to live comfortably in their outsized shadows. These are men like Pablo Picasso, Howard Hughes and Orson Welles, albeit not necessarily in that order. Of these men, however, only Welles has the curious distinction of being both a great man and also a great charlatan, the real deal and a real faker.
When Welles refers to himself as a charlatan in the narration that takes up so much of F For Fake and is the source of such endless pleasure, it registers not as self-deprecation but as self-aggrandizement. The joy of F For Fake comes from the sneaky pleasure of both deceiving and being deceived. It is a testament to the power and even necessity of lying, particularly where storytelling is concerned.
F For Fake doesn’t tell a story so much as it tells a series of stories that echo and overlap and parallel each other in unexpected ways. Much of the action takes place in Ibiza, which in the film functions as a magical oasis for scoundrels, scamps and geniuses alike, and the home of Elmyr de Hory, an art forger praised and condemned as the greatest in the world.
Elmyr de Hory’s curious existence was documented for posterity by one Clifford Irving, who in a perhaps related development went on to perpetrate one of the greatest literary frauds of the twentieth century when he forged the memoirs of Howard Hughes.
So Irving is an all-time fraud writing about another all-time fraud, and these curious, charismatic men’s strange adventures in creative larceny brought them to the attention of yet another all-time hoaxer. That would be one Orson Welles, who made history before Citizen Kane by perpetrating the greatest radio hoax of all time, the notorious and legendary production of War Of The Worlds. It was a production so astonishing and so convincing that according to show-business lore, it convinced a freaked-out populace that an alien attack was actually underway, and reacted accordingly.
F For Fake finds Orson Welles confidently portraying the third greatest role of his career, after Charles Foster Kane, and The Third Man’s Harry Lime: Orson Welles. Clad in dramatic black garb, topped off with a dramatic black cape, the heavily bearded and cigar-smoking Welles presides majestically over the proceedings with an abundance of Irish charm and entertaining flim-flammery.
Just as Citizen Kane was forever rocketing into the future, F For Fake is forever circling back in time to early eras. If Citizen Kane is the beginning, F For Fake treks even earlier than Welles’ debut to contemplate an alternate past (and with it, an alternate future) where Welles would have made his film debut not with a movie very thinly based on William Randolph Hearst, but rather with one drawing upon Clifford Irving’s old pal Howard Hughes.
Is it true that in this alternate world, Joseph Cotten would have played the Hughes figure, instead of Welles’ channeling William Randolph Hearst? Is it also true that the reason the Mercury Theater players chose to focus on Hearst rather than Hughes was because the true story of Hughes’ wild, wild life is so screamingly unlikely and preposterous that it would be wildly unconvincing as fiction?
I don’t know. With F For Fake, I assume that everything that Welles claims is true is probably a lie, while the stuff he claims is obviously false could very well be true. F For Fake is a meta, meta, meta movie that is in no small part about its creation, and its relationship to the very beginning of Welles’ career.
We return again and again to the editing bay in F For Fake, because that is where much of the magic happens. Cameras have the potential to convey important, incontrovertible truths. But in F For Fake, as in so much documentary and pseudo-documentary endeavors, editing is less a tool for revealing or uncovering truths than a way to create fictions, or to mold the raw materials of life into an irresistible lie.
F For Fake is a strangely satisfying way to end Welles’ remarkable and dramatic career as a preeminent auteur but it looks like the old magician might have one last trick up his sleeve. Last year it was announced that The Other Side Of The Wind, Welles’ famously unfinished engagement with the new Hollywood of the 1970s—a group of mavericks who grew up on Citizen Kane and worshipped Welles as one of the old lions of the art form—would be seeking financing from crowd-sourcing websites to finally raise money for completion.
Could this long-fabled urban legend of a movie become a reality in the years ahead? I once again have no idea. In a perfect world, Welles would return in the flesh to not only finish the movie but to present it to the world. War Of The Worlds was a neat trick, but it’s not quite faking your own death, then returning decades later, as Bob Zmuda creepily insisted Andy Kaufman would do in his awful book Andy Kaufman: The Truth Finally.
Death is a disappearing act none of us return from, with the exception of a certain magician from Nazareth with some crazy ideas about peace and love, but if anyone could escape its icy grasp, it’d be Welles, who didn’t just reign as a great man and a great artist, but also as a man so obscenely gifted that he almost seemed superhuman. Or maybe that was just an elaborate act of sleight and hand. With Welles, it can be hard, and also oddly pointless, to separate fact from fiction, the truth from an intoxicating lie.
Nathan Rabin is a pop culture writer, columnist and the author of four books, including Weird Al: The Book (with Al Yankovic) and You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me. He lives in Marietta, Georgia with his wife, son and dog.