This article is part of the “Some Kind of a Man” – The Orson Welles Blogathon, hosted by me, which runs from today (Sept. 1) to Sept. 7.
One of the things that brings clarity to Orson Welles’s extraordinary career and body of work is his fascination with blurring the line between reality and illusion. His audacious attempt to erase that line in the 1938 War of the Worlds radio broadcast had dramatic consequences, and began a career of mixing image with both truth and falsity. Welles was still blurring the line 35 years later with the quirky semi-documentary F for Fake, a bizarre and fascinating rumination on fakery and an unacknowledged gem in the late stretches of Welles’s filmography. Indeed, F for Fake is the movie version of a book I’d love to write: part fact, part fiction, frenetic in pace, sardonic in tone, and a lot of fun as it unfolds.
The film–ostensibly a documentary–begins with Welles showing off magic tricks to children, and then skews inexplicably into a tangent involving his shapely girlfriend Oja Kodar being ogled by anonymous Euro-trash men on the streets of various cities. Finally we get to the main plot: the incredible story of an art forger, a flamboyant grifter named Elmyr, who can paint flawless fakes in the style of artists like Picasso and Renoir and sell them as genuine on the art market. The twist comes when Elmyr’s biographer, Clifford Irving, goes rogue and writes a totally fake biography of reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes. This all happens in the early 1970s on the island of Ibiza, where Welles and Kodar live in a strange social bubble of idle wealth, narcissism and casual fraud that seems completely detached from life on the real planet Earth.
The trailer for F for Fake. Yes, the whole movie is like this.
I won’t spoil the central gimmick of F for Fake except to warn you, as a viewer, not to trust everything Welles says–and to check your watch when he promises to tell the truth for the next hour. In addition to playing fast and loose with facts, Welles toys with the audience’s expectations. There are unwritten rules to certain movies about when you expect to be tricked, and when you expect to be told the truth. The point Welles makes in F for Fake is the line dividing those expectations is basically arbitrary. And the point is even more meta when you realize it applies beyond movies: to the art market, for instance, or the literary world too. That Welles finds it all funny, and believes all of us are essentially gullible dupes, would be insulting if he wasn’t so charming, easy-going and up front about the only thing he says in the film that’s inviolably true: that Welles himself is just as fake as everyone else in the movie.
Admittedly, F for Fake, unconventional as it is, isn’t for everyone. When it came out in the mid-70s critics and audiences alike were baffled and disdainful, and in a sense you can’t blame them. It’s hard to pin down just what this film is. It’s not a documentary in the journalistic style: Welles’s eye is far short of impartial, and in any event too much of the movie is fictional to really qualify as a documentary. The film tries hard to make its characters, particularly Elmyr, likeable, but succeeds mostly in emphasizing how sad they are; the real Elmyr de Hory, penniless and hounded by the authorities for his forgeries and his sexuality, committed suicide in 1976. Clifford Irving doesn’t come off too well either. Irving spins his overblown theories about Elmyr while his pet spider monkey, perched on his shoulder, picks dandruff out of his scraggly 1972-era sideburns; not a good look. Almost everybody Welles shows us is cynically fraudulent. Only Kodar hovers above the fray, worshiped by Welles’s camera, like Bo Derek in “10” with furs and boots instead of a swimsuit.
In this scene from F for Fake, Orson Welles ruminates while Oja Kodar, his muse in the later part of his life, looks on and pokes fun. This scene is typical of the film’s treatment of her.
Still, despite its drawbacks, there’s something utterly mesmerizing about F for Fake. Though his efforts at garnering empathy don’t always succeed, Welles is successful at getting the audience interested in what interests him, and throughout the picture he seems to be having a great time, whether narrating grandly behind cans of film with a cigar in hand, or doing magic tricks in a French forest. F for Fake is not Welles’s best film by any means, but it does showcase his cheerful audacity, which is bereft of the pompousness that accompanied it when he was still Hollywood’s “boy genius.” Frankly I’d rather spend time with an obese and sardonic 60-year-old Orson Welles in the restaurants of Ibiza than a wiry and arrogant 26-year-old Orson Welles in Hollywood.
Would you be upset if you paid $20,000 for a sketch by Picasso only to discover later that it was dispatched in 10 minutes by Elmyr de Hory? I suppose you might, but what Welles is getting at in F for Fake is that if you’re prepared to pay $20,000 for a drawing simply because you think it’s by a particular person, in some sense the joke is on you. The schadenfreude one feels at the art dealers duped by Elmyr, or the publishers taken in by Clifford Irving, isn’t so different than having a bit of a chuckle at the egg on Oprah Winfrey’s face when she was burned on more than one occasion for lionizing memoirs, like James Frey’s fulsome A Million Little Pieces, that turned out to be fabrications. We feel amusement, as Welles clearly does here, at people who lose big because of their own gullibility. But the truth is that we are all susceptible to deception. It’s not necessarily a character flaw, though we often treat it as though it is.
Elmyr de Hory, one of the most notorious art forgers in modern history, fleeced art buyers and investors for big bucks before his suicide in 1976. Here he is creating one of his fake “masterpieces.”
I love F for Fake, and I think it’s one of Welles’s less-appreciated triumphs. It may be an unusual choice to begin this blogathon, but Orson Welles was an unusual man. The more you learn about him, the more mysterious he becomes. This film is Wells at his playful mysterious peak.
I do not know the copyright status of the screenshot for F for Fake, but I believe my inclusion of it here is permissible under fair use. I am not the uploader of any of the YouTube clips embedded here.