Orson Welles, the Great One: cinema’s baby-faced virtuoso tricked the world into thinking aliens had invaded when he was just twenty-three, directed Citizen Kane at only twenty-five, and was twice voted the greatest film director of all time by the British Film Institute. We can’t deny his genius. But scientists are now thinking that creativity and eccentricity might well go hand-in-hand – eccentricity being the by-product of the immense concentration skills that creative genius requires. But just how unusual was our Orson? Let’s take a look.
Sleight of Hand
Welles was fascinated by magic shows. One of his many unfinished projects, The Magic Show, was intended to be a rumination on magical history, with many of the illusions performed by Orson himself. But his interest wasn’t just archival: during World War II, he toured US military facilities with his own performing troupe, The Mercury Wonder Show – starring Welles himself, Rita Hayworth and Marlene Dietrich. Glamorous!
Welles was an actor as well as a director, often appearing in films to help finance his own projects – but he was horribly shy about his own appearance, particularly his nose, which he once claimed ‘had not grown one millimetre since infancy.’ So when you see him on-screen, much of the time you’ll be looking at a series of false noses, very heavy make-up and fat-suits.
It might not seem eccentric to us, but back in 1938, well before the Civil Rights movement had taken root, Welles defied convention by directing an all-black version of Macbeth – known as Voodoo Macbeth – for the WPA’s Federal Negro Theater Project in Harlem. When Percy Hammond, a reviewer for the Herald Tribune, panned the performance, one of the cast made a voodoo doll of him. Welles was said to have found this very funny – until Hammond died soon after…
Welles was famously hard-working – to the point of forgetting to eat while he was busy. But of course, he was famously portly, too. While filming The Other Side of the Wind in 1973, his crew abandoned the set mid-afternoon to find some lunch and Welles was left alone with one of the cast-members, fellow film-maker Peter Bogdanovich. In a move that would make Cher from Clueless proud, Welles ripped open an industrial-sized packet of Fritos, remarking to Bogdanovich, ‘You don’t gain weight if nobody sees you eating.’
A Chip Off The Block
Our scientific sources claim that the genius/eccentricity link is all in the genes – and Welles’ genetics were brimming with both. His father, Richard Hodgdon Head Welles, was an inventor – he came up with a new and massively popular carbide lamp for bicycles – and his mother, Beatrice Ives, was a concert pianist who supported herself and Orson by playing during lectures at the Chicago Art Institute after she separated from Richard in 1919. No wonder Orson was noted, throughout his career, for his ingenuity and technical innovation. It’s in the blood!