‘Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles’
Starring: Orson Welles, Simon Callow, Jeanne Moreau, Martin Scorsese and Charlton Heston
Running time: 91 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for brief language, some suggestive images/nudity and smoking
Rank: 4 stars out of 4
Kanye West never cut a duet with Orson Welles. But younger people should know him, and Chuck Workman’s fine, brisk and thoroughly entertaining overview of Orson, “Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles,” easily makes the case why.
In brilliant, light-handed strokes, Workman’s documentary captures the “boy genius,” the young tyro who was coddled through what could have been a traumatic childhood, indulged as he bluffed his way onto the stage and celebrated as he revolutionized the Depression Era theater, almost overnight, in his teens.
Then there was radio, which he conquered by Martian invasion, leading to Hollywood. That’s where he reinvented the movies.
“I had the confidence of ignorance,” Welles intones, delivering a well-polished one-liner to yet another crowd of adoring fans in his twilight.
It’s been almost 30 years since Welles died. His most famous film was already late, late show filler in the day of most kids’ grandparents, because “Citizen Kane” will celebrate its 75th anniversary very soon.
But “Magician” makes his case as the most important figure in film with ease. It’s built on half a century of Welles spinning his own myth in interviews on radio, film and TV, and buttressed with the greatest authorities on his colossal presence in the culture — biographers such as Simon Callow, friends such as actress Jeanne Moreau and director Peter Bogdanovich, and others who idolize him such as Julie Taymor, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and William Friedkin.
“There wasn’t, before him, an Orson,” said British director Peter Brook, who directed Welles in a celebrated TV production of “King Lear,” “and there’ll never be a second.”
The dazzling thing in “Magician” is how Workman breezily covers the various periods in Welles’ career.
These periods, worthy of entire books, begin with his childhood as “The Boy Wonder,” pass through his post-“Kane” and “Gypsy” years, when Hollywood was sure it had plenty of reasons not to hire him as a director. Then it ends with Richard “Boyhood” Linklater dubbing Welles as “the patron saint of indie filmmakers.”
There are generous samples of Welles’ acting, which could be hammy but rarely was boring. We remember his raconteur years in a jaunty montage of film and TV chat show appearances where his performance never failed to amuse, his polished interview anecdotes never failed to get laughs. The man was a master at playing to his audience.
Callow, the British actor best known for dying in “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” turned out to be his best, most sympathetic biographer. He cuts through the bluster to remind us what a fabulist and unrepentant self-promoter and liar Welles was, and that this was a great part of his charm.
And then there are the films, every one — from “Kane” and “The Stranger” through “Touch of Evil” and “Chimes at Midnight” — a masterpiece. Because if a movie is the sum total of our vivid memories of its electric moments, every Welles film — “Macbeth,” “The Trial” and “Othello” among them — is so stuffed with them as to make him the cinema’s ultimate touchstone.
Scores of scenes from movies that paid tribute to him, from “Ed Wood” to “Get Shorty,” are sampled. Charlton Heston, Norman Lloyd, William Alland, Tony Perkins and Richard Benjamin recall their unforgettable moments working with him.
And Marlene Dietrich, in that punch line from “Touch of Evil,” still sums up the actor, director, writer, magician, bon vivant, lover of women, food, music and wine, better than anybody.
“He was some kind of a man.”