Orson Welles: Frustrating The Left

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In The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987), Tom Wolfe’s British journalist uses his accent and his British sense of humor to cadge meals from his spellbound American colleagues.

By the 1960s to 1980s, being a spellbinding conversationalist was all actor/director Orson Welles had left. Because of his excesses (relying on style rather than substance in his films; an almost self-destructive refusal to tailor his films for mass audiences not leaning to the avant-garde; self-destructively taking on studio heads) no studio would touch him.

Like F. Scott Fitzgerald toward the end of his life (death by heart attack at 40), Welles’ subject matter was himself and what could have been. In a series of conversations from the 1960s to Welles’ death in 1985 with Henry Jaglom. who was also a writer/director/actor, the political animal in Welles showed he still wanted to ascend what the Brits call “the greasy pole” of politics.

This was certainly evident in the direction Welles was going after Citizen Kane. During World War II, Welles took to the mike for a series of anti-fascist broadcasts, and pow-wowed with FDR; Welles nearly did run in the Wisconsin Senate race in 46—his opponent would have been Joe McCarthy–and even entertained a Presidential run Despite asserting in later days that he came from the “radical part of the New Deal,” Welles emerges in his conversations with Jaglom to be merely an anti-Communist liberal.

Throughout the conversations, one get the sense from Jaglom, a New Leftist of trying to make Welles into someone politically acceptable to his generation.

Countering the direction Jaglom wants to move Welles toward, Welles glories in what we today call political correctness. Welles confessed that he got along much better with right-wingers like John Wayne (who he stated had the best manners of any actor he had ever known) and notes that at the height of the communist allegations against Welles, Wayne could not have been friendlier. Jaglom turns apoplectic when Welles didn’t try to “turn” Wayne over to his side. But Welles was more interested in friendship than conversion.

Jaglom constantly makes assumptions about Welles’ stances. He recoils in horror when he discovers that Welles did not support the 1948 Progressive Party Presidential candidate Henry Wallace because the latter was “controlled by the Communist Party.”

Welles also disappoints Jaglom about his eagerness to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Jaglom no doubt hoped for the standard Hollywood Leftist motivation—to tell the committee off. But Welles wanted to reveal his political views in hopes that he could educate Congress about the difference between a liberal and a communist.

Jaglom’s anger leaps off the page when Welles asserts that there are physical differences among nationalities, and reveals his own prejudices against the Irish. Welles even violates a huge taboo with the Left when he states that all possess bigotry and that is what makes people human.

Welles has always been considered by himself and others to be unconventional. But regarding his liberalism, Welles turns out to be a rather conventional anticommunist liberal.

Ron Capshaw is a Senior Contributor to The Liberty Conservative from Midlothian, Va. His work has appeared in National Review, The Weekly Standard, and the American Spectator.