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April 25, 2015


Plural Realities: F for Fake

Film professor and new Ugly Club contributor Vito Gulla ruminates on Orson Welles and the history of his final masterpiece. 

Orson Welles was fifty-five when he agreed to provide a voiceover in an advertisement for Findus frozen peas, and even though his greatest successes were long behind him (he won his first Academy Award in 1941 at the tender age of twenty-six), he still had standards. 

The last film he had made, The Immortal Story, hadn't made much of an impact. And worse still, he had become a genius that no one wanted to invest in. Why waste money on a director if nobody understood his movies--or went to see them, save for a few French critics?

So here he was the great director, taking direction from two amateurs. 

"We know a remote farm in Lincolnshire," he said, "where Mrs. Buckley lives. Every July, peas grow there. Do you really mean that?"

And his incredulity only increased with each new command.

The directors told him to emphasize the in in "in July." 

He found it absurd. If they could show him a way to start a proper English sentence in such a manner, he'd go down on them. 

They said to stress the word beef.

"This is a lot of shit," said Orson. "I wouldn't direct any living actor like this in Shakespeare."

But that was the hard part about living with such genius because the genius of being a genius was being able to express it. These directors, it seemed, didn't know how.

They tried to consul him, said, "That was absolutely fine. It really was."

But poor Orson couldn't take it anymore. He crumpled up the script and told them it wasn't worth the money.


I was fourteen-years-old when my father told me to sit down and watch the greatest film ever made. They were running it on Turner Classic, and my father wanted to make sure I had a well-rounded education. 

Its name was Citizen Kane. Its director was Orson Welles.

He told me I needed to watch it because it was a different kind of film, more like literature than anything else. 

I did as I was told and enjoyed it, but I didn't really see what was so special about it. It was a great movie. That was obvious. But really, what was so what? 

I asked my father to explain it, but it seemed he couldn't articulate it either. 

"It's something you'll understand when you're older," he said.   


Harry Cohen was fifty-five when Orson Welles staged a musical adaptation of Around the World in Eighty Days. Like most of his productions, it was grand and expensive, and when the original producer pulled out, Orson wired Harry to advance him the money in exchange for his services as director and writer of a future film with Columbia gratis. 

Somehow, after production began, Orson took on the lead as well and casted his estranged wife, Rita Hayworth, as the story's love interest and main antagonist. He had her cut off her long red hair and dyed it blonde, much to Cohn's chagrin.

"He's ruined you," said Cohn.

But that was only the beginning: Orson managed to ruin a lot of other things too. He shot a courtroom scene in lots of long shots, had the members of the jury smirking and laughing, the witnesses coughed and sneezed, even the lawyers didn't seem to be taking the case seriously. He created a winding and bizarre plot, where even after the movie was over, the audience would be left wondering who killed who and for what? And worse still, he ended it, put the very climax in a funhouse, in this surreal dreamscape of reflections and distortions. What the hell kind of movie was it?

It was a decision Cohn would regret for the rest of his life. He would never hire one man to write, direct, produce, and star in a film because, if he fired him, he would have to go find four different people to replace him.


Married to Orson Welles on September 7, 1943, Rita Hayworth was twenty-four. They had kept the wedding a secret until a day prior and were married before a judge. Joseph Cotton served as best man. Her sister Thelma was the maid of honor. 

The ceremony was swell, even for that small and quiet of celebrity weddings, but it was what they both wanted and were happy. 

A few hours later, they returned to work.

She was twenty-nine when they divorced. She always said Orson was the great love of her life, but he was a man who didn't want to be tied down, who didn't want responsibility. He said she interfered with his freedom.

When the judge asked her reason for the separation, she said, "I can't take his genius any more."


At sixty-three, Orson was getting too old for this--not just whoring himself out for some bullshit brand but getting drunk on set. He was supposed to recite his lines and tell why he preferred Paul Masson wine, but every word came out as a jumbled mess. His voice was high and shrill. He stumbled through take after take. 
It was a disaster, but he kept trying. Eventually, somebody said that's a wrap, and Orson got the check by mail.   

But when you watched the final product, the one that made it to air, it's of a man who is wholly put together, who is largely in control. And though a slight slur creeps in at the end, you believe him when he says, "Paul Masson must sell no wine before its time."


Four months after Orson turned fifty-nine, four years after his frustration with the Findus frozen peas commercial, and thirty-three after Citizen Kane, his film F for Fake was finally released in the United States. Orson didn't think of it as a documentary, what most people were calling it: He said it was a new kind of film. 

It told the story of the world's greatest art forger, Elmyr de Hory, and his biographer, something of a faker himself, Clifford Irving. These were the subjects. Two men who fooled the experts. Elmyr had passed off his own paintings as Picasso and Matisse, and Clifford had convinced the literary world he was writing the official biography of the reclusive Howard Hughes--even though the two had never met. But there was one more figure, one more charlatan, one more faker he felt the need to document: himself.

The film asked a very simple question: "You did it, but is it art?"


I'm older now, twenty-seven, one year older than Welles when he made Citizen Kane. But when I look at his body of work, it's not Kane that I always want to watch. Yes, it is amazing. Yes, it is one of the most innovative films ever made. Yes, it probably is one of--if not the greatest--film of all time. But I always thought his best film was his last, F for Fake. And it's not just the technique or craftsmanship that I find so appealing but the courage with which it was made. It's just as fearless as Kane, just as confusing as Lady from Shanghai, just as poetic as Chimes at Midnight, just as shocking as The Stranger, and as bold as Touch of Evil. It is the summation and demonstration of his entire career. And even the Devil, as he slithers around the Eden Tree, must admit, "It's pretty, because it's art."

Vito Gulla is a professor of film and literature. Read his blog and follow him on Twitter

F for Fake is available on Blu-Ray from the Criterion Collection


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