What Ever Happened to Orson Welles? A Portrait of an Independent Career
by Joseph McBride
The University Press of Kentucky, 394 pp., Paperback, $29.95
Published Jan. 11, 2022
What Ever Happened to Orson Welles? grew out of writer Joseph McBride’s frustration with the public perception of Welles. Almost everyone knew of and had seen Citizen Kane, the writer/director/actor’s stunning debut, but far less knew of his subsequent movies—a few of which might even be superior to Kane.
McBride knows his Welles: he’s been writing about him since 1970. He watched Kane 60 times before approaching Welles for an interview. Not long after he did, Welles cast McBride in The Other Side of the Wind—Welles’ legendarily unfinished final film.
When the hardback of What Ever Happened was published in 2006, Other Side of the Wind remained unfinished, Too Much Johnson (a pre-Kane short Welles made for a stage show) was missing, and The Hearts of Age (another pre-Kane short) was practically unknown. It isn’t too much of a stretch to suggest that McBride’s book had a hand in keeping these projects in the minds of cineastes, and now all three have been discovered, finished, restored, and available for home viewing.
McBride updates What Ever Happened where appropriate but retains the original text to preserve how the world came to overlook Welles and how contemporary scholarship is correcting that omission. Welles’ approach to entertainment and politics probably tracks better with today’s crowd than they ever did in his lifetime, and McBride does right by documenting it all with first-hand knowledge, exhaustive research, and energetic prose.
What Ever Happened to Orson Welles? is one of the best books you’ll find on a filmmaker’s career, not to mention understanding 20th century Hollywood from 35,000 feet. And at a manageable 330 pages, you could knock it out in four or five sittings. But with a story this good, you’ll want to savor every page.
Header photo: Welles and Eric Sherman face each other as camera operators while cinematographer Gary Graver holds a microphone (with back to camera at left). To Welles’s right: sound man Peter Pilafian, production manager (and later producer) Frank Marshall, and Joseph McBride, watching from the porch. In the background, two actors chat off-camera, Cameron Mitchell and Edmond O’Brien. (Frame enlargement from They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead courtesy Netflix). The above blurb first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 29, No. 23, “Something to see; something to read.”