In this fascinating clip from a 1974 interview by Michael Parkinson of the BBC, Orson Welles describes his “very strange relationship” with Ernest Hemingway, casting himself in a story of their first meeting as a torero opposed to Hemingway’s bull.
The two men met in New York in the early summer of 1937, when Welles was asked to narrate The Spanish Earth, a documentary organized by Hemingway and other artists to promote the Rebublican cause during the Spanish Civil War. Welles was a great admirer of Hemingway, who was 16 years his senior. When he was 18 years old he went to Spain to study bullfighting after reading Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon. But despite some similarities, the two men were poles apart, as Welles’ anecdote of their first meeting suggests.
The bravado in Welles’s story may have something to do with a need to compensate for his own injured pride over the reception of his narration for The Spanish Earth. Under pressure from Lillian Hellman and others in the project, who complained that Welles’ performance was too theatrical for the documentary, director Joris Ivens decided to scrap it and asked Hemingway to come back in to read his own words. Welles later drew on the incident in the projection room as inspiration for his script “The Sacred Beasts,” about the relationship between a young bullfighter and an older film director. The script was eventually developed into The Other Side of the Wind, an unfinished film starring John Huston as the Hemingway-inspired filmmaker Jake Hannaford. Welles was working on the project when the interview with Parkinson took place. You can see the complete interview on YouTube, and read a transcript at Wellesnet.
The Spanish Earth, Written and Narrated by Ernest Hemingway
Remembering Ernest Hemingway, Fifty Years After His Death
Orson Welles’s Last Interview, Two Hours Before His Death
Early on in his career Orson was branded with a totally bogus rap by the Hollywood machine-he was labeled as “difficult”, “a money waster”, “controlling”…and so on. Granted, he did bust his budget on several of his projects, especially so on his treatment of Booth Tarkington’s “The Magnificent Ambersons”, which went 20% over-budget. And he was difficult in that he wouldn’t fall in step with the long established methods employed by Hollywood’s major film studios.
Studio’s like RKO were far more interested in the bottom line than in nurturing a cagey artistic genius. I am not one to throw that designation around, but in this case, there is no doubt.
Orson Welles was likely the most gifted genius of the movie business…ever. Instead of receiving the recognition he deserved, he got a bum rap, a slam which haunted him his entire life and is only now, 30 years after his death, being re-thought.
We treated him very badly, making him the butt of an endless variety of crude and thoughtless jokes (John Candy’s humiliating lampooning comes immediately to mind). Yet, ever the class act, he laughed along. He was a great man, and should be remembered that way.