Orson Welles and face paint: What was the deal?

You’re Orson Welles and it’s 1952. You want to do a film of Shakespeare’s classic play Othello, The Moor of Venice, a play where the title character is black. (That’s what ‘moor’ meant at the time Shakespeare wrote the play. Nobody seems to have ever disputed that.) What do you do?

Do you go down to Central Casting or whatever department existed at the time and find a promising young black actor? Do you look through the rolls of established black actors? No. I’ll tell you what you do, because ‘you’ are Orson Welles and this is history: You grab a tin of shoe polish and play Othello yourself.

At least Shakespeare didn’t have Othello singing to anyone’s mammy. Things could have gotten ugly.

The Tragedy of Othello: The Moor of Venice (1952)

Now it’s 1958 and things have gotten extremely ugly, but due more to an affinity for starchy foods than race relations nightmares. You, still Orson Welles, have been hired to act in a film. Due to a mixup, however, the star, Charlton Heston, thinks you are there to direct, and the producer allows you to in order to keep the star happy. You rewrite the film and make numerous changes, among them something that probably doesn’t really matter.

But it does. It really, really does.

You change the race of one character from white to Mexican.

This wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t Charlton Heston’s character.

The part wasn’t recast.

We’re gonna need some more shoe polish.

Touch of Evil (1958)

Touch of Evil was so bad as to be unwatchable, despite being critically acclaimed at the time. Aside from the distracting impact of Charlton Heston playing the only Mexican in filmdom with no trace of a Mexican accent, there was a hilariously bizarre motel owner played by Dennis Weaver. That character would inspire Hitchcock to create Norman Bates, something about as bizarre as Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. inspiring Gomer Pyle, Full Metal Jacket.

“I’ll show sarge what my major malfunction is! Goll-ee!”

Olivier wore dark skin makeup for Khartoum (1966). I don’t think Welles or Olivier would have thought anymore of it than wearing fake scars or fake beards- it’s just something actors sometimes do for a role.

Wh-- What?!

One of the greatest movies of all time. That opening shot is still unsurpassed.

As for Welles and face-paint, the Mercury Theatre was originally a regular theatre troupe, and much of Welles’ success came from applying a non-literal and arty theatrical aesthetic to film. Theatrical makeup instead of “camera” makeup was part of that.

BTW, Welles hated the casting of Charlton Heston as the Mexican policeman. He wanted to go with a specific Spanish (literally Spanish, not Mexican) actor whose name eludes me, but who was not known to American audiences. His backers insisted on Heston for bankability.

Sampiro: True enough. But there were more than enough black actors working in Hollywood in the 1950s that Welles could easily have found one willing to play one of Shakespeare’s most famous leading characters.

Larry Mudd: When I wasn’t laughing hysterically at scenes and characters that weren’t meant to be funny I was bored to death. I’m sure a lot of people have enjoyed it and I mentioned it was critically acclaimed.

And I thought the theater practices of having whites play non-whites or (formerly) men play women was a response to a lack of real non-whites or (formerly) women. I didn’t know it was part of the art of the theater. I certainly didn’t think it would be worth replicating in the much more diverse Hollywood environment.

(Sampiro and I simulposted the second time around.)

That’s even more bizarre, but slightly more comprehensible. Did they not care what anyone would think when they saw Heston playing a Mexican? It isn’t like he even tried to do an accent (probably a good thing, actually).

Technically and artistically, I agree with you: it was unsurpassed. Entertainment-wise, I agree with Derleth: I sat through it, and found it thoroughly and completely unremarkable.

A great role like Othello, that had been taken on by some of the greatest actors going, without regard to their race, it’s going to take a while before people get too sensitive to consider taking it on for themselves. Theatrical traditions don’t just turn around on a dime. Hell, Anthony Hopkins turned in a fine Othello in the eighties - although they made a more fortunate choice of going for the look of an arabic moor rather than an african one.

It’s Othello. The part had been played by white guys for 500 years by that point. There was no reaosn to cast an (largely unknown) black actor except to make a political point. I can’t fault him for not taking the oppurtunity.

It’s partially because of the prejudices of the time keeping actors from the parts, but it’s also out of a belief that the actual race or ethnicity of the actor doesn’t matter, even if the race of the character is significant.

While we’ve been conditioned against blackface and are aware that too few good roles are availiable to minority actors, we still mostly believe that. We just have a knee jerk reaction against actually darkening an actor’s skin.

Are people here really so young or so ignorant of racial blacklisting (to use a deliberate word) that they think it would have been possible to cast a black actor as the lead in Othello in 1952?

Yaphet Kotto played Othello in a 1980 movie version so obscure that IMDb does have any description of it whatsoever, so the first major movie production I know of with a black lead appears to be Oliver Parker’s use of Laurence Fishburne. In 1995.

Derleth, you need to apologize to Orson Welles and drop everything to learn about the history of casting black or other minority actors as leads in motion pictures.

Of course I was much more appalled by the casting of Buddy Hackett in The Emperor Jones and Shelley Winters in The Hattie McDaniels Story. Alright, those didn’t happen… no more offensive than Birth of a Nation, though.

Not so; I’ve seen that discussed in a couple of threads and college Shakespeare courses.

I think Touch of Evil is terrific, but even if you overlook Exapno’s comments about blacklisting, remember that after Citizen Kane, studios NEVER listened to Orson Welles. They fired him from projects after shooting; they re-cut his films and ignored his requests. (That’s exactly what happende in the case of Touch of Evil, which his since been partly restored based on a letter he wrote to the studio.) He could’ve demanded a black actor until he was… well, pick a color… in the face; he wouldn’t have gotten one.

Derleth, part of the fun of watching old movies is that they allow us a privileged window into the context of the time in which they were made. You are judging these movies entirely based on your own limited present-day perspective, forgetting that part of today’s cinema context is that in INCLUDES such movies in its history. Welles made Othello at a time when it was just as acceptable for a white actor to put on blackface to play the Moor as it was for a young actor to glue a beard to his chin to play Lear. If the actor could pull off the characterization, the rest of it was just makeup, nothing more nothing less.

Also, what Marley23 said: he shot Othello overseas precisely because he had no power in the American studio system. He had total creative control over Citizen Kane. He was never *given *such autonomy again; he had to *take *it any way he could.

Oh and plus, taken in its proper historical context, *Touch of Evil *is–for many different reason–a towering masterpiece nearly utterly without parallel and nearly without peer.

You can’t judge the art of the past by the standards of today.

Orson Welles was pretty enlightened for his time; among the projects he was involved in was a 1942 production of Hamlet with an all-black cast.

He and Eartha Kitt kept company for a while too. :slight_smile:

And the remastered Touch of Evil is most wonderful. What were you watching?

Who even sat through those horrible wine commercials just to hear that voice!

Welles also directed a famous version of Macbeth in 1936, reset in Haiti with an all-black cast.

I agree that I’m probably mostly full of shit here. The OP was at least partly a joke, in that I know about the racism that existed in the past (although apparently not its full extent, see below) and I know that Orson Welles is actually a great director and one of the founders of the modern art of filmmaking.

I’ll try to defend my positions and explicate my ignorance below, broken down by film:
[li]Othello: I didn’t know that by 1952, it was still impossible (or even very hard) for a director to get a black actor to play what is, for all intents and purposes, a black role. I also didn’t know that the definition of ‘moor’ in this context was ever disputed. (I should have known better. It seems that everything in the context of Shakespeare is disputed, even Shakespeare. ;)) I also didn’t know any of the other great white actors who have played the Moor of Venice.[/li]
However, it still reeks of self-aggrandizement and prima-donnaism. Directing and starring in a movie based on the work of the greatest playwright in the history of the English language would seem to take enough gall to float a supertanker.
[li]Touch of Evil: This is one of those instances where I unfairly jump on someone for something that wasn’t entirely his fault. It’s entirely possible that, even though I watched a TCM showing of what was ostensibly the ‘restored’ version of the film, the boredom- and hilarity-inducing aspects of the movie weren’t due to Welles at all. However, judging by the reactions of others here I have to think that the movie I saw owed a bit more to the guy than that.[/li]
The casting of Heston as a Mexican was exactly half Welles’ fault: He rewrote the script to turn the character into a Mexican, and he didn’t change it back when he found out he couldn’t recast the part. Why he didn’t change it back is beyond me. Maybe by that point he couldn’t, which seems odd given all the other script changes he apparently had free reign in making.

I’m always the first to say that artistic merit and entertainment value don’t go together for all works and all people. If I were to sit down with the film and criticize it instead of reviewing it based on one half-attentive viewing, I would probably come away with a true appreciation for the film. I still, however, probably would not like it.

Welles was rare in that he had major directorial talent in addition to his acting ability. (If you ask me.) He didn’t just get directing gigs because he was going to star in the movie. There’s got to be plenty of precedent for directing and starring in Shakespeare movies, too. Olivier directed his version of Hamlet in 1948, and Kenneth Branagh did his LookatmeIdidafourhourversionofHamlet a few years ago, and I’m sure there are many others. But Welles could definitely be grandiose.

Welles’s talents are undeniable. For example, he wrote, directed, and starred in Citizen Kane, not to mention fighting with the studios to get it made and marketed. He strove mightily throughout his career and achieved great things. The fact Citizen Kane is one of my favorite movies is insignificant; it is one of the defining films of American cinema and would remain so even if I detested it.

If anyone earned the right to be grandiose, pompous, and even an asshole, it’s him. But that doesn’t mean we can’t laugh at him for it. :wink:

From what I’ve read of Welles, there was probably a strong element of “fuck you, then” about it.

We must remember too, that the problem with casting a black actor as Othello in a time when race relations were troublesome that Othello has a romantic relationship with a white woman. Even today, (and I know the reasons are complicated) producers only feel they can go so far as to pair off Will Smith with an Hispanic actress. :rolleyes:

They may be other reasons for hiring a white actor to play in blackface that have nothing to do with racism of course. Jonathan Miller (I think it is) said somewhere that one theme of the play is about masks – Iago refers to his ‘masking’ his real villainy a number of times – and the ‘mask’ of the blackface is part of this. So if you cast a black actor, you miss one of Shakespeare’s subtler variations on his ‘all the world’s a stage blah blah blah’ theme.

Actually the RSC filmed a really excellent version starring black opera star Willard White as Othello in 1989. (IMDB: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0357995/). Ian McKellen plays Iago. It’s a really excellent version.