Orson Welles and stinging the frog

1 December 2009

The launch of Richard Linklater’s film Me and Orson Welles is a reminder of how enigmatic the career of Orson Welles remains, a quarter of a century after his death. He had the world at his feet as a young man, after the success de scandale of The War of the Worlds, and the success d’estime of Citizen Kane, which routinely tops critics’ polls of the greatest film ever made.

But he died poor after over-eating at the relatively young age of 70, having made only a handful of films since Kane, always struggling with financing. (One remains unreleased even now because of contractual issues to do with its funding).

So why couldn’t he just bite his tongue and charm the money people rather than feeling the need to insult them? In a characteristically sharp article in The Guardian, about a month ago, David Thomson reminds us that Welles liked to tell, against himself, the story of the scorpion and the frog:

Of how the scorpion begged a lift across a stream; how the frog did not trust the scorpion; of how the scorpion said, but if I sting you, froggie, you will die, and I will drown. And so they set out and the frog had gone halfway when he felt the pain of the stinger. Why? he cries out, why did you do it? Now we will all die. I know, says the scorpion, but it is my character.

But Thomson also points out that dying rich isn’t necessarily a good quality in a film-maker. George Lucas, who only ever had one good idea (OK, perhaps one and a half), is currently worth $3 billion.

[Welles] may have died broke – his abiding condition – but he did not do it for the money. He did it for the sake of the medium and his artistic soul. That is a dangerous way to go, but it’s a big reason why the young honour him. Hollywood has always fancied it could undermine and destroy the great talents that came its way by giving them money. … Orson died alone in 1985 and you can read the reports as signs of sadness. On the contrary, I suspect he was exhilarated at the end. Real sadness is being worth $5bn and not knowing what to do with it.

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