80. Orson Welles’s Filming ‘Othello’
I’ve neglected this blog for nearly a year, dear readers.
I had suffered a surfeit of Shakespeare, something I didn’t think was possible. Fucking Hamlet again, I would think. Why? I mean, why?
So far, I have reviewed seven films of Hamlet. Some of them are great, but I may not even be able to watch another great one, especially since I won’t know it’s good until I watch it, and I am waxing wroth for too long for every bad one. Even a decent new one grates on the nerves.
What drew me back was this documentary of sorts about Orson Welles’s 1951 film of Othello. This isn’t a behind-the-scenes sort of film, since, as Welles points out, the film of Othello often lacked the materials to film Othello, so there were no cameras and film left over to film the filming. Instead, this document involves Welles sort of apologizing for making the film and daring to speak about Othello and Shakespeare at all, and eventually getting excited about showing us a movieola, which is kind of an excuse to show us clips for the film. For its small faults, Othello is a masterpiece of editing.
Welles tells wonderful stories about this legendary film shoot, including the roving production and filming in a bathhouse when they could not yet afford costumes. Welles does offer insights into the play, and into his filming of the play.
This conversation with Welles is spelled by a dinner conversation he shares with two of the other actors from the 1951 film, Micheal MacLiammoir (Iago) and Hilton Edwards (Brabantio) and by a question and answer session Welles submitted to with Boston University students.
I recognize the great difficulty of anyone trying to share commentary about Shakespeare for a mass audience, since there is the obvious question of, “Who is this for?” I imagine that is why Welles was apologizing at the start of this film for the very existence of this documentary,, and why documentaries such as Looking for Richard and Discovering Hamlet tend to be so idiotically, droolingly numb despite the intelligence of the artists working on them.
Filming ‘Othello’ is the best among these, in part because of the conversations Welles is having with his peers, with students, with us, and with himself. I do think if he was speaking with a single interviewer—just the right interviewer—it would have been better still, but the cobbled-together nature of the documentary is some ways befits the film it is a commentary upon.
What is so charming is that Welles is so earnest, despite his suspicion that he is both not as smart as Shakespeare, and that he is smarter than entertainment is allowed to be. Three years later he would be doing voice-work for Magnum P.I.
The conversations are intrinsically delightful, but also deepen my feelings for that troubled, crazy little film of Shakespeare’s tragedy. There was so much pressure on it, yet so much turned out right about it, too. At the end, Welles makes this confession: “With all my heart, I wish that I—I wasn’t looking back on Othello, but looking forward to it. That Othello would be a hell of a film.”
John King (Episode, well, all of them) holds a PhD in English from Purdue University, and an MFA from New York University. He has reviewed performances for Shakespeare Bulletin.