There’s that moment in Citizen Kane, after Kane has lost it all and he turns to Bernstein, his right-hand man, and Kane says, “If I hadn’t grown up wealthy, I could have been a great man.” It’s a wonderfully odd thing to realize that, if only you hadn’t been given everything in the world, you just might have amounted to something. That’s one way of reading it. In this case, the ultimate answer may, like so much in this film, remain a mystery.
Who really was Charles Foster Kane? And, for that matter, who really was Orson Welles? That is a question put forth in this new interview with novelist Jerome Charyn. We chat about his latest novel, Big Red, the fictionalized retelling of the tumultuous marriage of two of Hollywood’s greatest icons, Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles.
The truth remains elusive since, as is the case in life, we don’t exactly reveal ourselves all too easily, preferring to wear some sort of mask. In the case of Rita and Orson, they had quite an array of costumes to keep themselves hidden, some of the best costumes available during the golden age of Hollywood. Their marriage lasted only four years, from 1943 to 1947. In that time, Hayworth cemented her reputation as a sex symbol with 1946’s Gilda. In the meantime, Welles sustained his reputation as an unconventional filmmaker with 1947’s The Lady from Shanghai, starring his soon-to-be ex-wife.
It’s been often said that Hayworth considered Welles to be the love of her life. And Welles, in perhaps a moment mixed with guilt and pique famously said of their marriage: “If this was happiness, imagine what the rest of her life had been.”
Some things will remain a mystery. Perhaps Orson Welles was Hayworth’s greatest love. Or perhaps Welles was never Hayworth’s greatest love. There’s a case to be made that it was Glenn Ford. A love affair that lasted decades, going back to when they worked together on Gilda.
“The Love Goddess,” as she was nicknamed by Hollywood publicists, was, by and large, a shrinking violet. Orson and Rita could not have been more different. Orson grew up in wealth and was fully encouraged. Rita grew up in poverty and was betrayed by her family all the way to her father sexually abusing her. It was like night and day for Rita and Orson. One was loud and boisterous, The other was shy and quiet.
By all counts, the whirlwind love affair of Orson and Rita was doomed to failure. While they were both larger-than-life figures in the public eye, it was another story in private. Hayworth famously said that men were disappointed in her. “They went to bed with Gilda and, the next morning, they were stuck with me.”
Was Orson a misunderstood artist, tormented and misguided? I can see him as lavishly selfish. Jerome isn’t afraid to suggest Orson was evil. He says: “I think he was more than selfish. We’re all selfish. I think there was a touch of evil.”
“He was a dynamiter. He was a destroyer. He cut off her long red hair for Lady of Shanghai and destroyed her career.” Jerome is emphatic about the fact that Welles could have very well had a hit movie, instead of a misunderstood box office flop, had he simply left Hayworth’s million dollar image alone and not cut down her locks and dyed them blonde. It’s difficult to argue this. “Time and time again, Welles would destroy.”
Read my review of Big Red here.
Big Red is published by Liveright, an imprint of W.W. Norton.