The legendary career of Orson Welles is more than one movie can handle, writes Craig Mathieson.
6 Jul 2010 - 11:46 AM  UPDATED 6 Nov 2012 - 11:30 AM

Orson Welles loved the movies and, long after his death in 1985, the movies love him. Welles as a character – whether mercurial or embittered, proud or defeated – continues to pop up in the works of other filmmakers, although no-one appears ready to tackle the life of one of the 20th century's great artists head on; Welles has become the ultimate supporting character or surprise cameo – he's as elusive as Harry Lime, his memorable character from Carol Reed's The Third Man (pictured).

The latest sighting of him comes in Me and Orson Welles, the new feature from director Richard Linklater (School of Rock, Dazed and Confused) that opens nationally on July 29. English actor Christian McKay plays the young Welles, not yet midway through his twenties but already a theatrical prodigy. The movie, which co-stars teen idol Zac Efron and the intermittently promising Claire Danes, is set against the 1937 production of Julius Caesar by Welles and his producing partner John Houseman at New York's Mercury Theatre.

Welles' time on the stage has inspired several works. The most prominent being Tim Robbins' Cradle Will Rock – his little seen third feature after Bob Roberts and Dead Man Walking – which focuses on a Welles production from the same New York phase of The Cradle Will Rock, a politicised musical by Marc Blitzstein. Another Brit, Angus Macfadyen, plays Welles, with Hank Azaria as Blitzstein, in a recreation of the political battle over the show's content, which ended with the cast flouting various bans to perform the show without staging while sitting amongst the audience.

Macfadyen, like McKay, has the fleshy features that speak of Welles' astounding appetites. Both also make a fair fist of his legendary baritone voice (long after Hollywood put him aside Welles was valued for his voiceover work), as does Vincent D'Onofrio, who had a brief but memorably turn as a Welles who compares notes with a fellow filmmaker in Tim Burton's fine Ed Wood from 1994. Lamenting the perpetual interference of the studio system, he notes that Universal want him to do a thriller for them but insist that Charlton Heston must play a Mexican character – the film that eventually appeared, after the usual post-production mangling, was the classic A Touch of Evil in 1958.

D'Onofrio is only on screen for little more than two minutes, but he obviously had a yen for Welles. He subsequently made the fascinating half hour long short Five Minutes, Mr. Welles, which played film festivals in 2004 and is now online. In it he plays a moody Welles who careens around his hotel room, riffing and rewriting, when he should be on the set of The Third Man. D'Onofrio doesn't have Welles' boyish charm, but he has the unpredictability and the roaming intelligence.

That D'Onofrio can get so much out of one imagined episode from Welles' vast life is a clue as to why no-one has ever mounted a Welles biopic. What do you include? What can't you afford to leave out? The 1999 cable production RKO-281, about the writing of Citizen Kane by John Malkovich's Herman Mankiewicz at the instigation of Live Schreiber's Welles and its subsequent struggles, provides a fascinating account of a just a few months of his vast career – how could that be condensed into just a few minutes en route to The Magnificent Ambersons infamous derailment? Perhaps the only person who could make sense over two hours of celluloid of Welles' life is Welles himself, and that's one trick not even he could pull off now.