I celebrate Welles here as a director, because that’s the area I consider his greatest strength. But he was also a writer, actor, producer, and theater director.
Welles got his start in theater, directing contemporary productions of Macbeth (in Haiti, with voodoo instead of witches) and Hamlet (in fascist Italy). When his group, the Mercury Theatre, produced a radio broadcast of H.G. Wells The War of the Worlds, Welles gained instant notoriety.
But it was his direction of Citizen Kane (Great American Things, July 27, 2009) that established Welles’s reputation as a visionary film director. He employed many techniques never before used on film – nonlinear narrative, wonderful varieties of light and shadow, extended scenes, deep-focus camera perspectives. It received nine Academy Award nominations, but took just one award – Best Original Screenplay. Even so, it’s often considered the best American film ever made.
But Welles had two other masterpieces in him, though neither has had quite the acclaim of Citizen Kane. The first was his second film, The Magnificent Ambersons, released just one year after Kane. Notoriously strong-willed, Kane was eventually denied the final cut of the movie, which was shortened and given a happier ending than he wrote. Even so, it’s an excellent movie. And, following a bumpy couple of decades, Welles directed and co-starred with Charlton Heston in the 1958 film, Touch of Evil.
Welles won an honorary Oscar in 1971 for “superlative artistry and versatility in the creation of motion pictures.” He also received Life Achievement Awards from the American Film Institute and from the Directors Guild of America.