Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Young, Unmasked Man

Pauline Kael, on Orson Welles and Citizen Kane:

An additional quality that old movies acquire is that people can be seen as they once were. It is a pleasure we can’t get in theatre; we can only hear and read descriptions of past fabulous performances. But here in Kane is the young Welles, and he seems almost embarrassed to be exposed as so young. Perhaps he was embarrassed, and that’s why he so often hid in extravagant roles and behind those old-man false faces. He seems unsure of himself as the young Kane, and there’s something very engaging (and surprisingly human) about Welles unsure of himself; he’s a big, overgrown, heavy boy, and rather sheepish, one suspects, at being seen as he is. Many years later, Welles remarked, “Like most performers, I naturally prefer a live audience to that lie-detector full of celluloid.” Maybe his spoiled-baby face was just too nearly perfect for the role, and he knew it, and knew the hostile humor that lay behind Mankiewicz’s putting so much of him in the role of Hearst the braggart self-publicist and making Kane so infantile. That statement of principles that Jed sends back to Kane and that Kane then tears up must surely refer to the principles behind the co-founding of the Mercury Theatre by Welles and Houseman. Lines like Susan’s “You’re not a professional magician are you?” may have made Welles flinch. And it wasn’t just the writer who played games on him. There’s the scene of Welles eating in the newspaper office, which was obviously caught by the camera crew, and which, to be “a good sport,” he had to use. Welles is one of the most self-conscious of actors -- it’s part of his rapport with the audience —- and this is what is so nakedly revealed in this role, in which he’s playing a young man his own age and he’s insecure (and with some reason) about what’s coming through. Something of the young, unmasked man is revealed in these scenes —- to be closed off forever after.

Welles picks up assurance and flair as Kane in his thirties, and he’s also good when Kane is just a little older and jowly. I think there’s no doubt that he’s more sure of himself when he’s playing this somewhat older Kane, and this is the Kane we remember best from the first viewing—the brash, confident Kane of the pre-election-disaster period. He’s so fully -— classically —- American a showoff one almost regrets the change of title. But when I saw the movie again it was the younger Kane who stayed with me -— as if I had been looking through a photograph album and had come upon a group of pictures of an old friend, long dead, as he had been when I first met him. I had almost forgotten Welles in his youth, and here he is, smiling, eager, looking forward to the magnificent career that everyone expected him to have.

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