Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles screens on Friday at 10 a.m. at Hanesbrands and on April 22 at 7:30 p.m. at SECCA as part of RiverRun International Film Festival in Winston-Salem.
by Anthony Harrison
Orson Welles stands tall as one of the geniuses of the 20th Century. From his prodigious beginnings as a wunderkind dramatist to his cinematic triumphs of the 1930s and ’40s — and his eventual slide into brandy-fueled caricature — everything Welles did was epic and larger than life.
Chuck Workman’s documentary, Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles, presents a portrait of a giant, warts and all. The film utilizes archive footage of Welles and interviews with figures such as biographer Simon Callow, critic Elvis Mitchell, director Peter Bogdanovich, former classmate Joanne Styles and Christopher Welles Feder, Welles’ eldest daughter. Magician picks cherries from this wealth of footage to craft a highly informative, insightful and entertaining narrative.
Welles’ intellectual and artistic prowess impressed his peers as much as his elders. But his extraordinary prodigiousness came at a price.
“He was, without a doubt, the only person I know who had absolutely no empathetic skills,” Styles says. “I told him just what I thought about him. He looked at me — ‘Joanne, everybody has their little idiosyncrasies.’”
The film weaves its way through Welles’ rise, from his beginnings in the theater to his stint in radio, including his famous War of the Worlds broadcast — “the turning point in Welles’ career,” Bogdanovich says.
“Police were already in the control room during the broadcast, not knowing who to arrest,” Welles says.
Then, despite the artistry of films like Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, Magician details Welles’ strange fall from grace and self-imposed exile in Europe.
“I began as a star, and I’ve been working my way down ever since,” Welles says.
No matter what, Welles was seen as a megalithic figure.
“He was part of that movement that includes Picasso and Duke Ellington, all those artists who were aware in a way they hadn’t been before,” Mitchell says.
In his ingenuity, Welles paved the way for more artistry in Hollywood and abroad.
“Anything that I’ve done in any medium, if it’s ever been any good, has been my way — to quote the song,” Welles says.
Magician presents the complex life of a brilliant man with style and good humor.
“This is one of the great mysteries: why this extraordinarily smart guy was outwitted by so much less remarkable and intelligent people so often,” Callow says.
In one of Workman’s playful edits, Welles immediately answers Callow: “Money.”
Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles, dir. Chuck Workman, 94 min., 2014
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