'I Try to Be a Christian'
The great Jean Luc Godard once said of Orson Welles, "Everyone will always owe him everything."
Well-known for his innovative approach to staging and structuring classic dramas, as well as for his dashing looks when young, his portly self-defacing humor when old, and his booming, powerful voice throughout his life, Welles—voted the greatest director of all time by the British Film Institute in 2002—is one of the undisputed masters of cinema … not to mention theater, television and radio drama.
But where did he stand on things of faith?
In 1982, Merv Griffin asked the director about it during an interview. Welles replied, "I try to be a Christian. [But] I don't pray really, because I don't want to bore God." In fact, prayer was almost as uncomfortable subject for Welles as the birds and the bees. He told the French New Wave magazine Cahiers du Cinema, "In my opinion, there are two things that can absolutely not be carried to the screen: the realistic presentation of the sexual act and praying to God."
He would later quip (sounding like he's echoing Jesus' lukewarm water metaphor): "I have a great love and respect for religion, great love and respect for atheism. What I hate is agnosticism, people who do not choose." Nevertheless, he would later tell Andrew Sarris, "The ideal American type is perfectly expressed by the Protestant, individualist, anti-conformist, and this is the type that is in the process of disappearing. In reality there are few left."
Catholic parents, Satanic grandma
Born in 1915, Welles was raised Roman Catholic, but that soon ended when his parents divorced. Both parents died in his youth, and Welles was raised by a guardian, a fact reflected in his classic Citizen Kane.
As a young teen at an all-boys' school, Welles' love of drama took root as he read the classics, including his beloved Shakespeare and the Bible, and he wrote plays of his own. He also played many roles, some of them religious, including Mary in a passion play, Christ in The Servant in the House, and Judas Iscariot in Dust of the Road. But he spent most of his time in church scoping the congregation for girls to woo. On the darker side, Welles' grandmother was a Satan worshipper who had cursed his parents' marriage, and held black rites at his father's funeral. He never had kind words for her.
Traveling to Europe after his father's death, he famously walked into an Irish theater and brashly announced he was a famous American actor. He hit it big abroad and came back to America to become a prodigy at the age of 20 with his staging of Macbeth with a Haitian setting; thus started the rise and fall of a legendary career. Though his passion was for the theater, Welles supplemented his income doing radio work with his famous Mercury Theatre troupe, most infamously as Lamont Cranston in The Shadow, and as the announcer who sent America into a panic with his rendition of H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds.
A cinematic masterpiece
In 1940, Welles moved, with most of his troupe, from Broadway to Hollywood when RKO offered him an unprecedented deal for a first-time director: complete creative control. After going around and around with the studio execs, both sides finally settled on a project about the yellow journalism magnate William Randolph Hearst. Welles has said that every story is at bottom the Faust story, and Citizen Kane is perhaps the ultimate filmic expression of the story of a man who gains the world, yet loses his soul.
Welles reportedly watched John Ford's Stagecoach dozens of times before directing himself as the title character, Charles Foster Kane, who has all the money in the world, but realizes, too late, that it can't buy him love. Welles and co-writer Joseph Mankiewicz also included megalomaniac aspects of Joseph Pulitzer and Howard Hughes. Welles thought the hubris of these men needed to be burst like a balloon. In addition to the echoes of Greek and Shakespearean tragedy, Welles also borrowed ideas from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, which he had originally wanted to film, especially the technique of showing different perspectives of the same scenes.