The basic intention of the American Film Institutes’s Life Achievement Award was clear from the beginning: to recognize a career in film. As dictated by the Trustees, the primary criteria of the award are specific. The filmmaker chosen must have in some fundamental way advanced the art of film, and this work must be acknowledged alike by the general public, the critical and academic community, and by his professional peers. The careers of the award’s first two recipients, John Ford and James Cagney, ideally fulfilled the standards set.
Our choice this year is Orson Welles. He is surely qualified to stand with his predecessors on this dais. In that context, it’s interesting to note that he claims he prepared for his first film by “studying the work of the masters: John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford.” The film was CITIZEN KANE. It’s fair to say it has become a benchmark in world cinema, an achievement against which other films are still measured.
The first AFI award went to a director, the second to an actor. In Orson Welles, we honor both crafts. His phenomenal talent, unquenchable energies and unflagging enthusiasm have served him equally well on both sides of the camera. Indeed, they have now and then impelled him to function as producer, writer, designer, gaffer and make-up man, though to my knowledge he has never fallen off a horse for pay.
His achievements outside the cinema are memorable, as well. On stage, he’s done everything from Shakespeare to sawing women in half. Early in his career he assembled an extraordinarily gifted company of actors, the Mercury Players, and featured them in a memorable series of plays.
At the same time he electrified the Golden Age of radio with the same actors in the Mercury Playhouse. He brought most of them with him to Hollywood, planting a whole patch of flourishing talents in film. Throughout his career, his energies, his talents, and the fields they’ve reached could be described as protean.
Perhaps one of his most significant contributions to film was his pioneering effort as what we now call an independent filmmaker. In the Forties, when almost all production was still studio-based, Welles began making films entirely on location as a maverick independent, putting them together with spit, string, and chutzpah, blazing the trail for many filmmakers to follow. Happily, Orson Welles continues to pioneer.
We must mark the work we value while its makers are still with us, and it’s also good to mark the work of a man who is still doing it. Orson Welles came to films young enough to be burdened with that uneasiest of labels, a ‘Boy Wonder’.
He’s no longer a boy, but he’s still a wonder!