Film and Magic: Welles, Steinmeyer, Wheldon


here's an essay that I wrote on actor and magician Orson Welles...

Therapeutic Deception

“At its most personal level, therefore, the movie [F for Fake] becomes Welles’ confession that he was a prisoner of an illusion, a self-created public image which does not necessarily correspond to the ‘real’ person which is potentially destructive,”
James Naremore (Naremore as qtd. by Wheldon 30)

"I love magicians because they are honest men. They tell you they are going to fool you and then they proceed to do it. But no matter what happens at the show, when you get home you will still have your watch, your pocketbook, and your appendix. And that is more than I can say for some of my non-magician acquaintances." E. Hubbard (

Critic James Naremore suggests that F for Fake served as a catharsis for Welles’ years of deceit both onstage and offstage. In his book The Magic World of Orson Welles, from which this quote originates, Naremore alludes to the theatrical sphere in which Welles found himself “‘hiding himself under whiskers, false noses, and a variety of accents’” to the non-theatrical sphere which was comprised of such events as “the trick he tried to play upon the Gate Theatre in order to become an actor, the War of the Worlds hoax, etc.’” (Naremore as qtd. by Wheldon 30) However, particular to Welles’ perception of magic’s metaphor, the therapeutic function it served for him, and phenomenological nature of film, Naremore’s hypothesis does not stand. It is not F for Fake, but the live performance of magic itself, through which Welles aimed for catharsis; a practice he continued for years after making the film. Indeed Welles’ search for catharsis lasted until the very end. Welles’ final public performance occurred on television the night before he died.

It is important to understand the problem that Welles had with his life long immersion in the illusory theatrical and non-theatrical spheres to understand why the need for catharsis existed. In the documentary Fellini: I’m a Born Liar, actor Donald Sutherland speaks of this tension with identity in relation to Fellini and Welles,

“Fellini is constantly threatened by his own superficiality and is constantly running away from it. You know in the same sense as Orson Welles, you know. Orson Welles created a lie about himself that was in fact the truth but he knew it was a lie he created and once everybody believed it he went, he found it insupportable.” (Sutherland qtd. in Pettigrew)

This "insuportable" reputation for clouding the distinction between reality and illusion must have caused him the severe psychological distress for which he needed the catharsis. However, for several reasons, this catharsis more likely came in the form of live performance than on film.

For Welles, performing magic was the execution of a metaphor for deception. Welles is quoted as saying, “‘I discovered at the age of six that almost everything in this world was phony, worked with mirrors. Since then I’ve always wanted to be a magician.’” (quoted by Wheldon as quoted from Brady) It is important to realize that the deception metaphor for magic’s function is not necessarily the only one that can be conceptually held. Since Welles chose this particular metaphor, his choice supports the idea that his much of his identity was based on the worldview of deception. For Jim Steinmeyer, the metaphor that magic exacts on our lives is different. Steinmeyer is perhaps magic’s most eminent inventor. He has created stage illusions and consulted for clients such as David Copperfield, Siegfried and Roy, and even Welles himself. In his 1997 lecture notes, Steinmeyer sees magic’s metaphor as contrary to Welles’ metaphor, “As magician’s, we’ve traditionally misled ourselves for years by thinking of conjuring as the art of deception. Certainly, the ‘artist of deception’ is a title equally applied to the used car salesmen or advertising men.” (Steinmeyer 1) Instead, Steinmeyer believes that a “magician reminds his audience of the essential quality of mystery and wonder… a reminder of how much we do not know about the world. This is the essence of the magician’s art, the point at which the trick hints at a greater meaning” (13)

Welles’s focus on the deception metaphor made performing magic a therapeutic exercise for him. First, Welles’s role is that of a magician, yet the character is Orson Welles. Welles and his audience enter into a social contract by the audience exchanging money to be deceived and the Welles promising to fool them. Welles understands, perhaps only on a subconscious level, that the audience recognizes that he is working outside of the narrative frame and they are seeing him more as a himself than, say, Citizen Kane. For Welles, this understanding in confluence with the social contract between him and his audience makes performing magic onstage therapeutic. Before a live audience, Welles’s words and actions in performing magic could not be perceived as lies. The audience does not see them as such because of the social contract between the magician and the audience; the audience demands the lies. This is an example of why some magicians say that they are “honest liars.” Therefore, for only a few minutes onstage, Welles was able to escape the psychological distress of identifying himself as being illusory or unbelievable. If Welles did not properly execute the trick, he would not gain any therapy.

Furthermore, the phenomenological nature of the narrative film precludes any release of Welles’ psychological distress particular to Naremore’s argument for F for Fake. When Welles appears onscreen as a magician, one sees it as yet another one of his roles. One can watch this film without the knowledge that Welles indeed was a magician who had performed for the U.S.O. and on television in real life. Furthermore, if one were to believe Welles in F for Fake for saying that he was a performing magician, he or she would not have a license to do so because of Welles being a character among others in the film. Since Welles knew that as a magician onscreen could be perceived as yet another one of his deceptions of character, he would need to seek the stage as a means for therapy.

In conclusion, Orson Welles rendered the distinction between illusion and reality indistinguishable in his work and in his life. Welles identified so greatly with the concept of deception over the concept of wonder that he needed an escape from his world of lies. Contrary to Naremore’s hypothesis, Welles’ F for Fake did not provide him with the necessary means for escape. Welles could only perceive himself as a character among others within a world of fiction. Welles onstage, however, provided a different phenomenon for both himself and his audience. This phenomenon allowed Welles to gain therapy, even if only for a few minutes onstage.


Works Cited

Hubbard, E.

Pettigrew, Damian. Fellini: I’m a Born Liar. 2002.

Steinmeyer, Jim. Reminding and Deceiving: Guidelines and Examples Towards

Creating Theatrical Magic. Burbank: Hahne, 1997.

Wynn Pierce Wheldon. “Orson Welles the Magician.,” Genii: The Conjuror’s Magazine,

15 February 2000, 20-31.