Monday, May 05, 2008

A Birthday Tribute To Orson Welles With 10 Welles Wannabes

“I'm not very fond of movies. I don't go to them much.” - Orson Welles

Tomorrow is Orson Welles' birthday (May 6th, 1915). Since he died of a heart attack hunched over his typewriter in Los Angeles in 1985 his legend has grown immensely. The accolade “cinematic genius” as well as sayings like “larger than life” feel like they were coined for him. 

CITIZEN KANE still tops critics' lists, including mine, of the greatest movies ever and the rest of his fascinating filmography (what's available, that is) is both passionately studied by scholars and enjoyed by movie-lovers by the millions. Along with his birthday there are also a few notable anniversaries this year to pay tribute to - the classic thriller TOUCH OF EVIL turned 50 a few weeks back (it was released on April 23rd, 1958), his magnificent MACBETH hits 60 (Oct 1st, 1948), and this Halloween will be the 70th anniversary of the famous War Of The Worlds broadcast (Oct. 31st, 1938) that put Welles's name on the media map.

Since, as the saying goes, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery I thought it would be fun to look at Orson Welles as played by others. Many films and television shows - both live action and animated, have had actors portray the mighty moviemaker. IMDb even lists a separate page: Orson Welles (Character). Some of course pull off the impression better than others but they are all amusing attempts to capture the offbeat charm of one of the most well known figures of the 20th Century. So let's take a look at the men who would be KANE:

10 Orson Welles Wannabes

1. & 2. Maurice LaMarche & Vincent D'Onofrio - Why am I listing 1 & 2 together? Because LaMarche and D'Onofrio have both played Welles more than once and one time they played him together!

LaMarche, a gifted mimic, has provided his pitch perfect approximation of Welles' voice to The Simpsons, The Critic, and his character of the Brain on the cult favorite cartoon Pinky And The Brain is heavily based on Welles.

D'Onofrio who has a striking resemblence to Welles also played him in the short film FIVE MINUTES, MR. WELLES but in Tim Burton's 1994 tribute to the twisted filmmaker ED WOOD, D'Onofrio appears with LaMarche's voice dubbed in - that's right it took two people to play Orson Welles. 

Tempting to make a fat joke here but I'll let it go. Ed Wood (Johnny Depp) spies Welles sitting at a table in a bar nursing a cocktail, smoking a cigar, and working on pages of a screenplay. Wood introduces himself to Welles and shares his movie production frustrations with Welles who sympathizes offering: “I'm supposed to do a thriller at Universal, but they want Charlton Heston to play a Mexican. It's a good line but highly inaccurate - Heston insisted on Welles directing the project which was TOUCH OF EVIL but this doesn't marr the scene. 

Wood's meeting with Welles is relevatory to the aspiring director - the light of inspiration that glows in his face when Welles tells him: “Ed, visions are worth fighting for, why spend your life making somebody else's dreams? is a nice touching effect. 

Burton pulls off a bit of movie magic - for a brief instance we have Welles back and it's the young robust Welles not the bloated wine swigging caricature that most people think of when his name is dropped. Watch the scene on YouTube.

3. Angus Macfadyen in CRADLE WILL ROCK (1999) Far from as convincing as D'Onofrio & LaMarche, MacFadyen does have plenty of Welles's theatrical flair as he moves like a storm through Tim Robbins' romantised re-creation of the world of the theater in 1930's New York.

Based on the true story of a troubled production for the Federal Theater Project, Welles with the aid of John Houseman (more accurately portrayed by Cary Elwes) he fights to get the play of the title staged. 

Macfadyen does at key moments have the right Wellesian swagger though as Roger Ebert, a huge Welles scholar himself, wrote “Welles comes across as an obnoxious and often drunken genius in a performance by Macfadyen that doesn't look or sound much like the familiar original.” 

Very true and also Macfadyen is too Scottish for the part too. Still though in the context of Robbins' fine film he somehow makes his Welles work.

4. Liev Schreiber in RKO 281. This a bit of stretch but a tasty one. This telefilm made for HBO tells the story of the making and aftermath of CITIZEN KANE. Schreiber is in way over his head for the role and the facts are fumbled with ferociously. Still, the talented Schrieber does a fair impression of Welles speaking voice though only when imitating his soft spoken tones. RKO 281 (named after KANE's studio issued working title) is so littered with annoying inaccuracies and cheesy cliches that Welles expert (and longtime friend) Peter Bogdanovich said that it "was poorly acted by just about everybody" and that It had about as much connection to the Orson Welles I knew as the man in the moon. Ouch! Okay, let's move on...

  5. John Candy on Second City TV (1976-1979) - Of course the obvious reason that Candy was cast as the later day Welles in many SCTV sketches is his ginormous girth. He didn't really look like him facially and his voice doesn't quite sound like him but the material was funny and Candy could definitely bring the battered bombast. Check out this clip of Candy as Welles in a bit based on a tape of Welles recording a British frozen-peas audio advertisement (which you can listen to here). 

6. Eric Purcell in MALICE IN WONDERLAND - I haven't seen this TV movie from 1985 about the gossip columnists Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper played respectively by Elizabeth Taylor and Jane Alexander. Obviously I can't judge Purcell's performance - nor can I find any info about it online but I'm including it here because the film has Tim Robbins as Joseph Cotten! Maybe it's just me but that sounds like pretty juicy casting. Anybody out there seen it?

7. Danny Huston in FADE TO BLACK (2006) - Another I haven't seen but did locate the trailer. Judging from the preview Huston doesn't really seem to have the Welles vibe going. That's only based on 1 minute 46 seconds of footage mind you. From one of only a few reviews that are online of this British production set in Rome, Xan Brooks of the Guardian U.K. writes:

The role of one great director falls to Danny Huston, the son of another, who comes weaving through the action with his theatrical bearing and disreputable air, a cigar between his teeth and his pockets rattling with slimming pills; every inch the faded Hollywood idol.

Sounds like it may be worth a viewing - that is if it were available on NetFlix.

8. Paul Shenar in THE NIGHT THAT PANICKED AMERICA - I saw this TV movie years ago and I do recall that Shenar did a pretty decent job of mimicing the master. He should also get props for being the first actor on film to play Welles. Dramatising the historic War Of The Worlds broadcast inside and out this sadly isn't available on DVD but I hear that it pops up on TV from time to time. That's good 'cause I'd love to see it again. 

9. Christian McKay in the upcoming ME AND ORSON WELLES - Richard Linklater's next film (set for 2009) like CRADLE WILL ROCK depicts the theatrics both onstage and off of Orson's literally go-for-broke 1930's lifestyle.

McKay has portrayed Welles on stage and the word is that he has got the delusion of grandeur goods. Of McKay's performance in the Broadway production of “Rosebud: The Lives Of Orson Welles” 

The Daily Telegraph wrote: “Christian McKay plays this celluloid colossus to perfection… anticipating the many facets of Welles’ personality that then sparkle through the show… The stories are so fantastical and various that Rosebud would mesmerise someone unacquainted with his work as much as a film buff. The arc of his career, from overachieving wunderkind to an overweight clown who endorsed frozen peas in television commercials, has the simplicity of classical tragedy and makes for compelling theatre.” Since Linklater is one of my favorite current directors and Orson is a ongoing obsession for me I'll be really looking forward to this one. 

10. Jean Guérin in HEAVENLY CREATURES (1994) - It's been a while since I've seen this movie and to be honest I don't remember Guérin as Welles in it. He makes the list because he also played Welles in LA VENGEANCE DE LA FEMME EN NOIR (1997) - another film I haven't seen and can find very little info on. Sigh. 

There you go - 10 Orson Welles impersonators. It should be noted that Linklater's film isn't the only Orson related activity on the horizon. Reportedly Peter Bogdanovich is looking to finish work on one of Welles last films - THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND. The excellent site Wellesnet has this insightful article about the project

That's all for now - Happy Birthday Welles wherever you are! 

Such a great if compromised career - from Martians to the Muppets! Hope you're grandly laughing it up at the great moviehouse in the sky. 

More later...


Evan Derrick said...

Great insightful list, Daniel. I had no clue there had been so many Wellesian roles over the years. If you had asked me to name one I could have picked out D'Onofrio from ED WOOD, but that is about it. And I had no clue that Burton had used a separate actor to record the dialogue, although now that I think of it, the scene did have an otherworldly air to it, due in part to the fact that it didn't sound like D'Onofrio.

Great read, this.

Anonymous said...

HHMM?! Wonder what the accuracy is for the Fade to Black story? Good stuff Man. I'm a huge Welles guy and didn't know half this list.

Anonymous said...

If you want to see "La vengence de la femme en noir", you can buy it on the Archambault web store at:

Since I live in Quebec (where the movie is from, just tell me if you want more info!


Paul Stephen Lim said...

I'm surprised you left out the stage play ORSON'S SHADOW by Austin Pendleton. It's based on the hilarious real-life account of how Welles directed Laurence Olivier and Joan Plowright in a stage production of Ionesco's RHINOCEROS.

Anonymous said...

I saw the raw footage of Otherside of the Wind a few years back. Gary Graver, the late friend and cinematographer of Welles (not to mention eminent director of various porn titles in the 80s), made a cut with various footage that he shot with interspersed intertitles to give story details for which the footage does not exist or was not completed. It was terribly frustrating to watch because it had everything thats so attractive but self-destructive about Welles. On one hand there are elements of the visual and stylistic genius he famously possessed, but its also aimless, stubborn, and lazy; just like most of his non-Hollywood films.

Big Mike Mendez said...

What about Jack Black's terrible homage to Welles in King Kong?

Daniel Cook Johnson said...

Ah, you're right - I had forgotten about Jack Black in KING KONG. In an interview in Science Fiction Weekly at the time of the release of the film Black said:
"Here's the Orson Welles-ian thing that I don't have. Whatever he's doing, he's kind of cool. He's always kind of debonair and in control, which is not my style. But hopefully, yeah, I did channel [Welles] a little bit because I know that's what they had envisioned for the character."

And yes, you're also right - it was horrible as Black himself acknowledged later.

Anonymous said...

I loved watching Citizen Kane in Film 460 at CSUB with Prof. Gary Byrd, and afterward I noticed something myself. In Law and Order: Criminal Intent, especially in the Rene Balzer directed episodes, they love to use the same camera tricks on D'Onofrio as they used in Kane. It's terribly fun to watch D'Onofrio now and see how Welles' directing innovations have lived on after all these years.