Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles (2014)
Certain stars are larger than life, and with that reputation comes a tendency for documentaries and biographies to glamorize or deify their subject, placing them in a league above men entirely. Chuck Workman’s documentary, Magician, gives reasons for elevating Welles while also saying that Welles himself wouldn’t have been content with anything less than godlike-status. Magician is the story of a man constantly acting, whether it was pretending to be a devoted husband/father or having to shill for money to fund his projects, Welles did what he had to in order to make his art. Unfortunately, his art, time and again, risked interference from the studios, economics, and Welles’ own ego.
It’s a bit of understatement calling Welles “a most unusual boy,” considering the legacy of work he’d birth onto the cinematic landscape, but Magician sets up Welles as a boy out of time; cold, formal, an outsider would all be terms describing Welles as a young boy. Continuously moving from place to place, with Woodstock, Illinois being the closest place Welles would consider a home. After the death of his mother, Welles was forced to live with a stepfather he despised, and eventually got his revenge by naming a character after him in Citizen Kane.
At a little over 90-minutes, Magician doesn’t waste too much time on the young Welles’ academic career, but utilizes it as a solid foundation for the authority he desperately craved in his dramatic work. From there the film briskly hits the highlights of Welles’ career: the creation of the Mercury Theater, the War of the Worlds radio broadcast, Citizen Kane, etc. The script moves rather fluidly, never completing committing to one key element but presenting an overview of Welles’ career.
This might disappoint those interested in his marriages or personal life; there’s very little mention of it outside of stating who he married. Much like its subject, Workman and crew are devoted to examining the work and that does lead to a bit of a disjoint by the end when Welles’ last relationship with Oja Koder comes up. Koder has been a fervent disciple of restoring Welles’ work and since she is one of the few women in Welles’ life still living, Workman takes the time to interview her. This isn’t a problem, one of Welles’ daughters is also interviewed, but it seems like the editing on Koder’s segments went wrong as she casually mentions Geraldine Fitzgerald having a son she never told Welles was his. There’s no set-up for this comment, and outside of a compilation slideshow of Welles’ lovers with Fitzgerald in it, there’s no talk of a relationship. It comes off like someone forget to snip her comment out or she demanded they keep it in. There’s also a long diatribe about Welles’ love of food and ballooning waistline that, while funny, seems a bit mean-spirited.
The brunt of the documentary’s power comes from Welles himself. Workman presents a scrapbook of Welles’ ephemera, including showing his drawings and, of course, clips from his films. There are phenomenal interviews with important people in Welles’ life, from critics to former schoolmates, and Welles’ voice is a constant presence through numerous interviews. Welles’ conveys his passion for film making, backed up by clips from the films themselves.
“I didn’t want money. I wanted authority,” Welles declares and that’s what became his downfall. The documentary’s third act sees the numerous failures Welles carried under his belt, and his desires to keep pushing the boundaries of filmmaking. Clips from his unfinished works are shown, but it’s saddest hearing Welles lament his inability to see his visions come to fruition. While several of his unfinished works are awaiting restoration, his sense of underwhelming himself remains palpable.
Welles was certainly a towering personality, and Magician barely scratches the surface in 90-minutes. The documentary has a clear-cut focus, and remains devoted to spotlighting Welles: the director above anything else. This does do a bit of a disservice towards removing the veil and showing us the true man underneath; Welles remains that cold, formal personality he was as a child if this is anything to go off of. And considering that Workman inserts an epilogue about Welles’ daughters not speaking to each other, it’s apparent that something hindered this production, whether it was the availability of interviews or what, that prevented Welles from coming off like a fully-formed person. Regardless, those interested purely in Welles as a director, or those interested in a launchpad for learning more about Orson Welles will certainly enjoy this early education.
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Kristen Lopez View All
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.
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