“For dramatic purposes, I detest it”—Orson Welles, collector of noses

Text Museum

There is something liberating about wearing a false nose, especially the variety found in children’s dress up kits: rubbery, oversized, with small holes punched on opposite ends, enabling a head-spanning length of elastic to be attached. When you wear a nose like this, you are not exactly someone else, but you are also not yourself. You are wearing a wink, or a nudge, half a practical joke; a face-morphing prop that suggests your physiognomy is malleable. Noses of this kind, the sort you can take on and off like a hat or pair of socks, are endearing largely because of their impermanence. They make fizzy cameos until they get too sweaty or weird. For years during childhood, and inexplicably, at points in my late teens, I would slip on a nose before family dinners at random, for attention or boredom or both. My favoured nose was hawkish and misshapen; it was the fleshy, pliant, boil-ridden nose of a witch. I assume the nose was annoying, but I very much enjoyed it, and was too busy breathing through my mouth and navigating my food around the new shape to notice any wincing from my parents.

Orson Welles, the actor, director, producer and writer, was an admirer of phony noses long before my domestic experiments. In fact, the exacting and cantankerous American was known for wearing them with great regularity in his films; noses produced to detailed notes, designed to fit his face alone. Some were subtle, barely noticeable. Others were cyclopean. According to David Cairns, the Scottish academic and critic, Welles stored each one in a special display case, and often gave them names. “Sheriff Hank Quinlan’s bloated drunkard’s schnozz, for instance, was named Sandra,” Cairns writes. “The aquiline hooter worn in his television King Lear, made by cutting the corner from a shoebox, went by the nickname Sloane Jr.”

Welles did not necessarily abhor his own nose. It was, from all accounts— and from the extensive photo archive available to us—rather a nice one. But he found it unexceptional and easily forgotten, not of a suitable calibre for a man in his profession. To discuss the mechanics of Welles’ nose play further— when they were on, off, and with more specifity, why—I began an email exchange with Joseph McBride. The film historian, who has written three books on Welles, was happy to oblige.

LAURA BANNISTER I’d like to begin with your own relationship with Orson Welles, which is far-reaching and will be rather hard to distil here. You nod to its variegations in a review for Bright Lights: “In the 15 years during which I was fortunate to know and work with Welles, I had a complex relationship with him, finding him sometimes bullying and harsh but many times friendly and confiding.”

JOSEPH MCBRIDE I’ve been studying Welles for almost 50 years now, since I first saw Citizen Kane in a film class at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, on September 22, 1966. That screening changed my life. Before that, I had been planning to combine my career as a journalist—which I’ve been since 1960—with writing novels. After seeing Kane, though, I started writing books about films, writing screenplays and wanting to be a director …

When I first met Welles in August 1970, I had mostly finished my book on him and was writing a critical study of [filmmaker John] Ford with Michael Wilmington. So I came to Hollywood to interview Ford, a rare and raucous and illuminating experience (he actually announced his retirement in the course of our interview, after a film career of 56 years). When I arrived, I called Peter Bogdanovich, who was then a young critic-turned-director; I wanted to meet Peter because I admired his work, and he was a role model of mine. He said, “I’m on the other line with Orson” and asked me to hold. I was surprised. I never dreamed Welles would be in Hollywood, since he had spent most of the past 12-plus years in Europe. Welles told Peter to have me call him the next day. The first thing he said was, “We’re about to start shooting a film. Would you like to be in it?” That flabbergasted me, since I wasn’t an actor. It turned out he was about to start shooting The Other Side of the Wind, his roman à clef about Hollywood, and with Peter’s help was recruiting young film buffs and filmmakers to play comical versions of themselves. So I was in the first day’s shooting until the last (in 1976) on this legendary unfinished film.

I play an ambitious but bumptious film critic named Mister Pister who pesters John Huston (who plays a legendary director, Jake Hannaford) with questions for a book he is writing on Hannaford. Bogdanovich started out playing a hustling young interviewer, but after he became a major director [in real life] with 1971’s The Last Picture Show, he was recast as a hotshot young director, and our earlier scenes were reshot … A serious effort is now underway to complete the film, but I’m not holding my breath, after so many years of legal and financial roadblocks.

Working for Welles—the greatest director of actors in the history of the cinema—was my film school. He bullied me for the first three years of shooting, wanting to keep me in an anxious state to fit my comical film critic character. One day a crewmember told me that Welles, watching [raw footage], had said, “Joe looks good up there. But then he always looks good onscreen.” I suddenly relaxed and enjoyed the last three years of shooting.

I’m still writing about Welles. I joke that when I am 90, I will write one more book called Orson Welles: The Last Word. But that’s not really a joke. I have found that once you start writing about someone, you can never finish.

BANNISTER Do you know how Welles felt about your writing that involved him?

MCBRIDE I had sent him (via his lawyer) some essays on his films that I was publishing in magazines. These were parts of what would become my first book on him, the 1972 Orson Welles. It took four years to write and made me little money, but established my reputation as a critic and film historian. I had also sent him my first published book, which contained three essays on his films, including a long analysis of The Magnificent Ambersons, my most sustained piece of film criticism (later revised for the two editions of Orson Welles). On the day I met him in 1970, I found that he had Persistence of Vision propped up on his mantelpiece at his Los Angeles home. As we shook hands, he said, “I finally meet my favourite critic.” I asked why he considered me that, and he said, “You’re the only critic who understands what I’m trying to do.”

BANNISTER Welles was known for employing prosthetic noses in films—but not television—and often, for carefully applying them himself, meaning his face could be slightly different from scene to scene: nose bent upward, sideways, slightly downturned, depending on how he’d fixed it. Did you ever witness him applying a nose?

MCBRIDE I never saw him making up. He makes himself up as Falstaff in a splendid appearance on The Dean Martin Show, which can be seen on YouTube; he talks about the character as he transforms himself with makeup and costuming … Welles loved makeup and was expert with it. His grade school teacher in Madison, Wisconsin, said that when he was bullied on the playground, he brought his makeup box to school and painted a frightening face on himself to scare away tormentors. While he was at Madison’s Camp Indianola, he made himself up as Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde for a one-man show to entertain the other boys. You can see that early on he used makeup as a weapon, [both] to protect and to ingratiate himself. Since he was not satisfied with his appearance—he said he had the face of “a rather depraved baby,” and disliked his button-like nose—he spent much of his life on film, TV and the stage in makeup, sometimes extremely elaborate or grotesque.

BANNISTER Vulture claims Welles almost always wore a fake nose, believing his to be dainty and lacking in character. Do you agree with this? If not, what, to your knowledge, was his reasoning—both for wearing phony noses and for self-application?

MCBRIDE Welles once said, “It’s terrible for an actor not to have a nose. For all normal purposes, my nose is pleasant. For dramatic purposes, I detest it.” I think his small nose is fine, if perhaps limiting, but he felt acutely uncomfortable with it, and that’s the point. He may have thought it wasn’t ‘kingly’ enough. He said he was the kind of actor who played kings—not necessarily because of talent but because of his physiognomy, and the nose was incongruent with the rest of his body. He needed to disguise himself. The most extreme instance is in the title role of his film Mr. Arkadin (1955), in which his wig and nose are obviously fake, because the character is trying to hide his past, identity and true nature … Similarly, I think there is a deeper psychological motive in Welles’ own absorption in makeup. Welles had many secrets in his personality and guarded them carefully. Many actors turn to acting because they are dissatisfied with who they are or how they look, or because they want to transform themselves into other people. Welles travelled with a collection of noses and sometimes even wore false noses in public.

A strong, Roman nose became part of his persona. The shapes of his noses varied according to the roles—often the more tyrannical or bizarre, the more outlandish the nose. The most extravagantly phony nose Welles sported in his entire career was in the 1971 French film La Décade Prodigieuse or Ten Days’ Wonder. A strange grayish-green device, it often changed colour from shot to shot. Although the film about a diabolical tycoon is, among other things, a stylish commentary by director Claude Chabrol on various aspects of Welles’ work, some critics were not enchanted by [the actor’s] baroque performance, including one who wrote that the film’s only suspense was watching to see if Welles’ nose would fall off during a scene. When I later interviewed Chabrol in Los Angeles, he admitted that the nose was rather bizarre but was unable to do anything about it. He said, “I asked Orson to change the nose one day, because it was too green.” He’d replied, “My dear Claude, I am a changing character—at the end of the film my whole face will be green.” What can you say?

It’s often noted that one of the few times Welles acted on film or TV without a false nose was as Harry Lime in The Third Man. Lime is a black-market racketeer who sells diluted penicillin that kills children. Welles said, “I hate Harry Lime. He has no passion; he is cold; he is Lucifer, the fallen angel.” A psychologist could have a field day with the fact that Welles played that loathsome, yet diabolically charming character without a false nose, looking like his real self. I think there are a few other parts in which he appears with his real nose, or close to it, but not more than a few.

BANNISTER Did he distrust makeup artists?

MCBRIDE On the contrary, he loved them. He especially adored Maurice Seiderman, who did his makeup for Citizen Kane … Seiderman was an artist who transformed Welles from [his mid-20s] to late 70s, a process that involved specially-designed rubber implants, fishskins and other contraptions that took hours each day to apply. Welles told Bogdanovich, “I could hardly move for the corsets and the fishskins on my face. Norman Mailer wrote once that when I was once young, I was the most beautiful man anybody had ever seen. Yes! Made up for Citizen Kane!” Perhaps the most remarkable transformation is the middle-aged Kane, a difficult stage of life for any young actor to imagine, let alone play. [But] Welles had been playing old men onstage and on film from his boyhood (as in his early amateur film The Hearts of Age, in which he played a death figure, looking like a cross between Dr Caligari and a comic Irishman). He was fascinated with age and decrepitude.

Seiderman did not get credit for Kane, because he was not in the union, but Welles took out an ad in the trade papers thanking him and calling him the greatest makeup artist in the world. He brought back Seiderman to work with him on other films, most notably to transform him into the bloated monstrosity Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil. Many people assume Welles really was that large and grotesque at the time, but it was mostly Seiderman’s makeup. Quinlan’s gross look is a sign of Welles’ fascination with German expressionism, in which the outer appearance echoes the inner being.

BANNISTER When acting, did Orson take responsibility for other elements of his costuming?

MCBRIDE Welles became involved with everything, sometimes even taking over the direction of scenes he was in. But if he was indifferent to the film, as he was to many he appeared in, his involvement could be merely professional. I assume he always had an actor’s concern with his costuming in any role, and that he sometimes influenced it, but often had to appear in outlandish period gear he probably thought was ridiculous, as do we viewers. One of his last film performances was as the voice of the Planet Unicron in an animated film, The Transformers: The Movie (1986): “I played the voice of a toy. Some terrible robot toys from Japan that change from one thing to another … all bad outer-space stuff. I play a planet. I menaced somebody called Something-or-other. Then I’m destroyed … I tear myself apart on the screen.” The strangest aspect of his performance is that his voice is so distorted electronically you can hardly tell it’s him.

BANNISTER You’ve mentioned Welles occasionally performed without a false nose. Can you pinpoint when? (On Movie Morlocks, Jeff Stafford surmises, “It’s quite possible that Welles has never allowed his real nose to be filmed without some additional padding or special makeup except for his youthful scenes in Citizen Kane, his Irish sailor in The Lady from Shanghai and any live appearances as himself.”)

MCBRIDE Welles, as I’ve noted, does wear a false nose and other makeup as the young Kane. In his final screen appearance—Henry Jaglom’s Someone to Love (1987)—Welles is essentially playing himself, and his nose looks relatively natural. In that film he is wise and charming, a humorous sage. His nose is small indeed as the Irish vagabond Michael O’Hara in The Lady from Shanghai. Welles lays on the Irish charm rather too thickly in that part, but O’Hara is mostly sympathetic, unlike Harry Lime; O’Hara is something of a rogue and says he killed a man—though for idealistic reasons, in Spain for the Republican cause. But Bertolt Brecht influenced Welles, especially in that period … His makeup, accents, and other forms of ‘hiding’ in various films can be seen as Brechtian [alienation] devices.

BANNISTER I’m interested in your own thoughts as to how Welles’ new noses impact the audience or critic’s relationship with his character. Do you find them useful, powerful, distracting, caricaturist or something else entirely?

MCBRIDE Sometimes the noses and other outlandish makeup and garb seem to signal Welles’ lack of interest in a part or contempt for it, letting us know he doesn’t take a film seriously but is camping it up … I heard Welles say late in his life that he always wished he could have been a great popular artist like Charles Dickens. But the trouble with his film career, as fellow director Jean Renoir put it, was that he was an aristocrat working in a popular medium … Much of the time, Welles did not take himself entirely seriously as an actor. He was willing to do just about any part to earn money, because that’s how he supported his largely unprofitable directing career. He committed the cardinal sin of the film industry by pouring his own money into his films. But he almost never compromised as a director. That is his glory.

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