Modern Matinees: Considering Joseph Cotten

There was always a quiet intensity associated with the Virginia-born radio, theater, film, and television actor Joseph Cotten (1905–1994). Cotten’s best-known role is that of Jedediah Leland in Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941), playing the champion of the enigmatic Charles Foster Kane. Cotten’s friendship with Welles began in the early 1930s, when both men worked at CBS Radio, and Welles brought Cotten into the Mercury Theatre company with starring roles on Broadway in Caesar (1937) and Danton’s Death (1938). After an early detour into filmmaking with Welles on Too Much Johnson—a film thought lost until 2013—Cotten returned to Broadway in 1939 to star in the original production of The Philadelphia Story.

The pair soon returned to film with Citizen Kane, followed by The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) and Journey into Fear (1943) (with a screenplay by Cotten based on the Eric Ambler novel). When Cotten decided to step out of Welles’s shadow, he was recognized by producer David O. Selznick, who wanted to place him under contract. And though Cotten was still legally bound to the Mercury Theatre company, Welles magnanimously voided the agreement. (Years later, in 1949, Cotten and Welles teamed up once again for Carol Reed’s The Third Man.)

Always versatile as a leading man, Cotten played a variety of roles in such Selznick films as Since You Went Away (1944), Duel in the Sun (1946), and Portrait of Jennie (1948). He returned to the stage in 1953, where he originated the role of Linus Larrabee in the Broadway production of Sabrina Fair, later adapted for the screen as Sabrina (1954), starring Humphrey Bogart and Audrey Hepburn. Toward the end of his career, in the 1960s and ’70s, Cotten lent a certain respectability to an assortment of sensational productions such as Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971), and Soylent Green (1973). This career-spanning selection of Cotten’s work is primarily drawn from MoMA’s collection.

Organized by Anne Morra, Associate Curator, Department of Film.