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It’s Valentine’s Day, so I figured I’d post something about the nature of the love affair moviemakers have with the beautiful and brutal lover called film. We pour our hearts, souls and wallets (and our friends’ and familys’ wallets!) into our films—our labors of love—only to be repeatedly heartbroken. It’s not unlike dating in New York City. You fall for all these crazy, passionate ideas, mold them into scripts and trick your friends into believing they’re good… only to be left heartbroken and crying on the floor when they get rejected.
Why do we do this to ourselves? Because: When you see your precious footage edited together for the first time into a rough cut, time stops. You’ve documented a moment that no longer exists. You’ve captured lightning in a bottle, forever. And the more truthful the moment you capture, the more lasting, the more painfully beautiful it is.
I was at the gym recently listening to Jeff Goldsmith’s podcast, The Q&A, specifically the episode where director Peter Bogdanovich discusses Orson Welles’ lost masterpiece, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). If you don’t know about Welles’ follow up to Citizen Kane, you should give the episode a listen, as it’s truly an amazing story. Based on Booth Tarkington’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about a wealthy 19th century family that suffers the transition from agrarian to industrial culture, The Magnificent Ambersons lives on in legend and lore as one of the greatest films that never was.
Welles, after finishing Ambersons, went off to Brazil to work on a project for the war effort. While he was gone, the studio, RKO—which had taken a bath on the million-dollar budget of Citizen Kane, since the Heart Corporation’s boycott of the film kept it from playing in many theaters—decided to cut Ambersons in half after receiving some negative audience review cards (which still exist!). Welles’ original cut, over two hours long, was slashed to a mere 88 minutes. Against the director’s will, RKO released the film, and when it didn’t do well (even though it got an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, it lost something like $600,000), Welles’ sterling reputation was damaged. He was knocked off his Hollywood pedestal, and he was never really able to climb back up. For the rest of his life, the legendary director’s career was like many of ours: Spent scrabbling for funds so he could make his next film.
Many years after the disastrous release of Ambersons, Welles spoke at length about the film with Bogdanovich, a life-long friend of his, even suggesting the possibility of rounding up the original cast to film an epilogue… anything to help his wounded masterpiece. Of course, it never happened, and even worse, Welles was never able to locate the cut footage. Rumor has it that it was destroyed specifically so that Welles would never be able to (re)-create the film. In fact, Welles discovered in the 1950s that the footage had literally been dumped in the ocean. The thought of half of The Magnificent Ambersons floating away in the Santa Monica surf is as bizarre and heartbreaking as any moviemaker’s nightmare I’ve ever heard of.
Bogdanovich recounts watching Ambersons on TV late one night at Welles’ house. Welles changed the channel, but he switched it back after the evening’s guests—Cybill Shepherd and Welles’ companion Oja Kodar—protested. Later, Kodar gestured to Bogdanovich: Welles was alone in the corner, crying. Sorry to have dredged such painful emotions to the surface, Bogdanovich turned the film off.
A day later, he and Welles ran into each other. “I wasn’t crying because the picture was cut—that just makes me angry. I was moved because it’s all over now. It’s in the past… It’s gone,” said Welles. “It’s gone.”
Tears for a lost film, a lost era, a lost career? Maybe instead of celebrating St. Valentine on February 14th, moviemakers should celebrate St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes.
Happy St. Jude’s Day, all you film lovers!
Jayce Bartok is an actor/producer/writer/director who runs Vinyl Foote Productions from Brooklyn with his wife Tiffany. He wrote, co-produced and starred in The Cake Eaters and can currently be seen in USA’s “White Collar” and in the upcoming feature films Predisposed, opposite Melissa Leo, and Price Check, both of which premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. To stay updated on his Tiny Dancer progress, follow @JayceBartok and @TICNYC on Twitter.