Once Moor with Feeling
Waiters cringed, but Welles was a loving papa
Orson Welles changed the way America looked at movies. Indeed, at age 26, Welles directed and starred in Citizen Kane (1941), which many critics consider the best film ever made. Two other of Welles’s 12 movies are often ranked with it: The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) and his 1952 adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello. But few people have ever seen that film; four years in the making, it was released briefly in only two U.S. cities. Now, though, a fully restored version is playing to critical acclaim and packed houses in New York City and is being released nationwide this month. It will be featured again, 40 years after its first showing there, at the Cannes Film Festival.
The woman responsible for the restoration is Welles’s daughter Beatrice Welles-Smith, 36. Named after Welles’s mother, a concert pianist who died on his ninth birthday, Beatrice was baptized at the Good Shepherd Roman Catholic Church in Beverly Hills, with Frank Sinatra and actress Mercedes McCambridge serving as godparents. She spent her childhood traveling the world with her father and her mother, Italian Countess Paola Mori, Welles’s third wife (of 30 years). They formed the heart of a large retinue that accompanied the director as he sought work abroad, having been roundly snubbed by Hollywood for his high-handed ways. They finally settled in 1978 in Las Vegas in an Oriental-style house, complete with a red bridge curving over an imaginary stream at the front door. Beatrice lives in that house now with her husband, Christopher Smith, who supplies in-room movies to Vegas hotels. She’s still surrounded by the kind of stray animals her father was always bringing home. (Beatrice saw little of her two half sisters, Christopher, now 52, daughter of actress Virginia Nicholson, and Rebecca, 47, from Orson’s stormy marriage to Rita Hayworth.)
Though busy with her own cosmetics company, titled simply Beatrice Welles, as well as with her work with The Animal Foundation, Beatrice took time over the last two years to have Othello restored. With national correspondent Lois Armstrong, she recalled life with her luminous, headstrong, loving father.
I WOULD ENVY ME FOR THE CHILDHOOD I had if I were someone else. I remember childhood as being this big adventure, and I was absolutely spoiled with love and attention.
But Daddy was not an easy person to live with. You can’t be a genius—and I really do believe he was a genius—and be a normal person. He was patient with fans, but he could be just awful sometimes to a waiter. He would raise his voice, which was enough to make anyone shudder, and blame the waiter for the food. You just wanted to crawl under the table.
It wasn’t until the American Film Institute honored Daddy in 1975 that America accepted him again and we were able to move back here. Daddy was a Midwesterner from Kenosha, Wis.—such an American! People think he went into exile, but he didn’t. He couldn’t make a movie in this country, so he went where he could find work. For example, he made Chimes at Midnight in Europe. But even the Europeans didn’t open their arms to him. It was a pretty tough struggle, and I’m bitter for him sometimes, but he was never bitter. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t moody, and he was let down by friends. He was an emotional man, but I saw him cry only once, and that was at a bullfight.
Just before we moved to Las Vegas permanently, we went to see Shirley MacLaine at Caesars Palace. When we walked in, the lights were on, and there was this spontaneous burst of applause. I poked my mother and said, “We’re late! The show’s already started.” Then I looked around, and everyone was standing and giving my father an ovation. Till that day, I honestly didn’t realize what Orson Welles meant to people, this love, this respect they had for him.
He was upset when I finally left home, in 1978, to work for a radio station in Sedona, Ariz. It was very selfish of him; to his mind, if I went away, it really wasn’t home anymore. He said, “You’re not going to get any financial help from me. But if you ever get into trouble, you can always come back home.”
My mother remained in his life until he died of an embolism in 1985 at age 70. But they sort of separated toward the end because he had a girlfriend. My mother found out about it, and he denied it. She told him he could come back home as soon as he stopped lying to her. He didn’t come home during that last year of his life, but he and my mother talked on the phone every day.
I’m grateful that during the last seven months before Daddy died, I was closer to him than I’d ever been. He finally accepted that I was grown up. I think his weight loss toward the end of his life contributed to his death. If you’ve taken a lifetime to put on this weight, you need another lifetime to take it off. He lost 50 lbs. in six months. My mother called me over to the house on the day he died and said, “It’s Daddy.” She didn’t have to say anything else. At least he died happy: He believed he had backers for him to do King Lear.
My mother died 10 months after Daddy. It was as if she didn’t want to go on. I inherited her title, Countess di Gerfalco—it’s not a big deal, everybody in Italy has a title, but I’m proud of it. Both of them were cremated, and we took the urns back to Europe in May 1987. I had kept Daddy under my desk in my office at home for more than a year, trying to arrange his burial in Spain. We buried Daddy on May 6, his birth date. The burial took place in Ronda, where the Spanish bullfighter Antonio Ordoñez breeds his bulls. The morning we left, I remember driving over those hills, holding the urn with his ashes. As we were climbing, the taxi driver said, “We’re getting a little bit closer to heaven all the time,” and I thought, “This is so right.”
The whole point of this restoration is that Othello was never properly shown. During four years of off-again, on-again filming, he managed to keep the cast and crew together by working on other films to keep them paid. To play the Moor, he made himself up. And it’s his own hair, just curled. There’s one story about the first day of shooting in Mogador, on the west coast of Morocco. Everyone was there, and everything had arrived—except the costumes. This was when Daddy found out that the Italian backer had dropped out, and there was no money. He couldn’t afford to keep this cast and crew waiting for the costumes to arrive, so he decided to shoot the scene where Roderigo is murdered by Iago in the baths. He dressed all the actors and extras in white sheets and towels from the hotel where they were staying. That scene stayed in the final version.
He was too early for his time. He was an innovator, and people are scared of change. Maybe now is his time, but he would never have restored one of his old films. If he’d had anything to do with this, he would have said, “Hey, give me the money and I’ll make a movie now. Don’t waste your money on a movie I did 40 years ago.” But I have vowed that I will try to raise money and devote myself to reviving his work. This was a labor of love—like his was.