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12/09/2014 05:43 pm ET Updated Feb 08, 2015

Popcorn Preview: Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles

Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles (2014)
Director: Chuck Workman
Genre: Documentary (94 minutes)

"A magician is just an actor." --Orson Welles. The chubby little boy was extraordinary almost from the beginning. His parents divorced and Orson lived with his mother in Chicago. She was a "great beauty and a social reformer." She had no tolerance for dull children and let Orson know if he didn't want to get sent to his room, he needed to excel at something. He played the piano and the violin. He entertained her friends. Orson was only 9 when she died, and his international playboy father took charge of his upbringing. At his new school, the other kids hated him. He wasn't at all athletic... all he knew anything about was violin, piano, China, Shakespeare and the Bible. "He had no empathetic skills at all," said a classmate. "Everyone has their little idiosyncrasies," said Welles. He soon discovered he had a talent for showmanship. He put on plays, giving himself the staring roles... even if it was Mary, mother of Jesus.

Welles didn't turn out to be much of a family man, even though he tried it several times... 3 wives, one daughter by each. He was more taken with theater and new media... radio and film. He was already famous when CBS gave him his own radio show... Mercury Theater. "Ladies and gentlemen, we interrupt this broadcast..." Using the style of radio news, the program gave an hysterical account of an alien invasion in Grover Mills, and it scared the public half to death. Police showed up at the station before the broadcast ended, but they didn't know whom to arrest. "I didn't go to jail. I went to Hollywood." By this time, Orson Welles was one of the most famous men in America... some loved him; some hated him. Movie studios bargained hard to get him, and he drove a hard bargain. "I didn't want money. I wanted authority." RKO let him make Citizen Kane, but all the while, William Randolph Hearst... the figure at the center of the story... pressured RKO to shut it down, burn the negatives and delay the opening. It was a timid opening to be sure, but moviegoers could hardly deny the brilliance of it. Welles continued making films in Hollywood, but it was a struggle because they treated him like a force to be contained. "Did you ever make a picture after Citizen Kane?" a fan asked.

The independent film system in Europe gave Welles what he wanted most... authority... or at least a better chance of it. "There wasn't before him an Orson Welles, and there will never be another." Welles stretched the boundaries of what could be done in radio, film, theater and television. Unlike some of the films made about Welles's life... which was truly astonishing... Magician gives us an appreciation of his artistry. Filmmaker Chuck Workman used over 900 outside sources to assemble this remarkable documentary. He had to find the sources, contact many individuals, get prints and permissions.... a hugely time consuming task. Welles did indeed make other films after Citizen Kane. In fact, many think he just got better and better. He was never easy to work with. His films were rarely wildly successful... "so outside the box... not everyone gets it at the time." He was huge... not just in size... not just in movies. But he was a huge international media star, and Magician will renew you appreciation of his art.

3 popped kernels (Scale: 0-4)
An appreciation of Orson Welles and why his work is so important

Popcorn Profile
Rated: PG-13
Audience: Grown-ups
Gender Style: Neutral
Distribution: Art House
Mood: Neutral
Tempo: Cruises Comfortably
Visual Style: Unvarnished Realism
Nutshell: Orson Welles
Language: True to life
Social Significance: Informative & Thought Provoking

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