One week before his death, the filmmaker opened up about 'Citizen Kane,' his relationship with Hollywood and how he'll be remembered.
Netflix’s new movie, Mank, chronicles the development of the screenplay for Citizen Kane, often considered American cinema’s greatest film. While David Fincher’s black-and-white feature details the making of Orson Welles’ silver screen debut, ET’s final interview with the iconoclast sheds light on the aftermath of his breakout success in Hollywood.
“My first picture would never have been made, never in a million years, if the producer had lived in Hollywood. And had any knowledge of Hollywood,” Welles said during a sit-down interview in 1985, exactly one week before he died at age 70 on Oct. 10. “It was a complete accident. A total piece of luck. Like winning 600,000 dollars from a quarter jackpot.”
He added, “And it couldn't go on. And I knew that.”
Welles remained as blunt and straightforward as his reputation at the time had suggested in one of his final interviews. When Welles spoke with ET, he was promoting Orson Welles: A Biography by Barbara Leaming, who had conducted hundreds of hours of interviews with the filmmaker.
After Citizen Kane, Welles reckoned with the reality of how most films were made within the Old Hollywood studio system. His next movie, The Magnificent Ambersons, he recalled, was “taken away from him,” and that the original ending was “butchered.” He remained undeterred and even used this experience to fuel his work moving forward.
“I was going to show them that they were wrong and I've spent the rest of my life showing people,” Welles said. He admitted this motivation ultimately didn’t manifest quality results in the ways that seemingly mattered most to him. “Trying to prove that what is said wrong and that's been an enormous waste of spirit and of energy.”
The film industry was supposed to be just another pit-stop on a life’s journey that had already included hits on Broadway and, infamously, his War of the Worlds radio broadcast. Welles referred to himself, then and now, as “a romantic in the early 19th-century way.”
“I wanted every experience. Every kind of thing,” Welles said. “I went to Hollywood in that spirit. And I should have left in that spirit.”
With his prodigal performance abilities, and now-iconic booming voice in tow, Welles had already gained notoriety in theater and radio productions. Throughout the rave reviews and accolades, Welles remembered one phrase the most. “All I heard about was the ‘self-styled genius.’ So, that's what I took seriously. That I was styling myself a genius. And you know, anybody can do that,” Welles said with a laugh.
Mank is Netflix’s second project this year, after Ryan Murphy’s Hollywood, that has indicated there’s still a cultural obsession with this bygone era of the entertainment industry.
In the film, Gary Oldman portrays Herman J. Mankiewicz, a journalist-turned-screenwriter who was tapped by Welles (Tom Burke) to aid him in writing Citizen Kane, and crafting a thinly veiled portrayal of the life of newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance).
Mank dives into the complexities and controversies around the screenplay’s origin story, much of it undoubtedly caused by Welles’ auteur approach both on and off the studio backlots. “My pictures don't work at all unless it's my way,” Welles told ET. “It's not because I think they're better that way. They simply fall apart unless they're done my way. So, it isn't nobility. It's for self-protection.”
Although, Welles acknowledged there’s always room for a margin of error when people reflect on their earliest years. “Ask anybody of my age what they feel about themselves when they're young, I think you'll get a very waffly answer,” Welles said. “I think of myself as having been an awfully nice fellow then. And I may have blacked out whole sections of dreadful behavior, but I've genuinely blocked them out. I just see myself as angelically moving from one show to another.”
In regard to his legacy, Welles revealed he ultimately preferred to “be remembered as a good guy than as a difficult genius.” His longtime presence in cinema was, in a sense, him making the best of a bad situation. “I've always hated Hollywood, but I hate almost everything in the modern world. And Hollywood is simply the most pleasant place to live in left,” Welles said.
Within these emotional reflections, Welles admitted, “I've had a wonderful and fascinating life. I can't complain. I'm the luckiest person I know.”