For would-be biographers, Orson Welles is the colossus on the horizon that grows larger — and more incomprehensible — the nearer you approach. Get too close and all you see is the pedestal, part of an inscription or maybe a toe. Biographers also have to contend with the fact that Welles was a gifted and artful liar, capable of dropping hints that he was the product of an affair his mother had with King Edward VII, that when he was 9 years old he had dined with Hitler or that he had had an affair with Eva Perón.
Given the difficulty of seeing Welles steadily and seeing him whole, it is no surprise that the best biographies have approached him piecemeal: Last year, Patrick McGilligan’s “Young Orson” devoted 800 pages to just the first 25 years of his life. And this year we have “One-Man Band,” the richly detailed and immensely readable third installment of Simon Callow’s projected four-volume biography. It covers the years from the late 1940s through the mid-1960s, which were bracketed by two Shakespeare films: “Othello” in 1952 and “Chimes at Midnight” in 1965. In 1955 came Welles’s audacious staging of “Moby-Dick” in London, which received rave reviews and which Callow says Welles considered “the best thing he had ever done in any medium.” And in 1958 he made “Touch of Evil,” “every frame” of which, Callow asserts, “celebrates the art of film.”
But it was also the period when his reputation took its severest hits. In 1952, the New York theater critic Walter Kerr called Welles “possibly the youngest living has-been.” Welles was stung by the epithet, and it stuck. Much has been written ever since about the man who, after triumphs in New York theater and on radio, went to Hollywood to make the film masterpiece “Citizen Kane,” but never again regained those heights. “Welles had committed an unforgivable crime in American eyes: he had failed, but refused to give up,” Callow says. “He was just irritatingly there, a constant reminder of the disappointment he had caused.”
Callow’s biography aims at correcting that image of Welles, emphasizing the significant artistic achievements of this period and the reasons they were undervalued. The two major movies, “Touch of Evil” and “Chimes at Midnight,” for example, were both seriously mishandled in distribution. As RKO had done with Welles’s “The Magnificent Ambersons” 16 years earlier, the studio, Universal, took over “Touch of Evil” after a sneak-
preview audience panned it, trimmed it heavily and released it on the bottom half of a double bill. And “Chimes at Midnight” was the victim of disputes by the several sources that financed it: The legal haggling over who had the distribution rights prevented widespread public exhibition and release on DVD until very recently.
Callow is not one to psychoanalyze Welles. He thinks it “better to accept him as a phenomenon, unparalleled, a law unto himself — because he accepts no other law.” And as such, he could be undermined by his own weaknesses.
Callow, an actor with long experience both on stage and in movies, provocatively asserts that Welles was not by nature a filmmaker: “It was his tragedy that he lacked the gift of working conceptually, to conceive his work in his head. His inspiration came from what he saw in front of his eyes; his genius depended on being able to improvise and interact with the material.”
In the theater, the rehearsal process allowed for a certain amount of reworking the show on the fly and even in mid-run, but once a film has started shooting, a director can’t make radical changes of direction, and even the editing process has its limitations. Welles himself admitted, “If I’m on a picture too long I get bored. Then I can cause problems.”
Callow’s acting experience also gives him an insight into something else that troubled Welles. When he was directing a play or film in which he appeared, unlike such actor-directors as Laurence Olivier, Welles typically had others read his lines during rehearsals. Callow asserts that “Welles was fundamentally insecure as an actor.”
On “Chimes at Midnight,” Jeanne Moreau, playing Doll Tearsheet to Welles’s Falstaff, wondered why Welles kept making excuses to postpone shooting their scenes together. Once he told her that he couldn’t find his makeup kit. When she spotted it, a makeup assistant warned her not to tell Welles: “He has stage-fright. He hid it himself.”
What makes Callow’s biography so exciting is that he’s not willing to reduce Welles to a formula: misunderstood genius, for example, or self-destructive egotist.
Plenty of epithets have been applied to Welles. Micheál MacLiammóir, who gave Welles his start in professional theater in Dublin in 1931 and played Iago to Welles’s Othello in the film, cited his “courage . . imagination, egotism, generosity, ruthlessness, forbearance, impatience, sensitivity, grossness and vision.” More fancifully, Jean Cocteau called him “a giant with the face of a child, a tree filled with birds and shadows, a dog who has broken loose and gone to sleep in the flower bed.”
Callow simplifies things for us: “It is characteristic of many of Welles’s commentators that they select one or other of the many Welleses as quintessential, but the mystery of the man is that all the Welleses coexist; all are true.”
Charles Matthews is a writer and editor in Northern California.
Read more from our archives:
By Simon Callow
Viking. 466 pp. $40