It was nearly 30 years ago, I suppose, that Simon Callow began working on his biography of Orson Welles. It was originally conceived as a two-volume project, but after the first volume — whose story takes us to the completion of Citizen Kane — was published and work began on the second, Callow realized that he was not going to be able to narrate the next 45 years of Welles’s life in a single book. Instead, he made the fascinating, and I think wise, choice to devote the entire second volume to the five years following the completion of Kane, because during those five years Welles put an end to his relationship with the American studio system, and was left with only one option: to become what Callow calls a “one-man band.” This became the title of the third volume — and eventually there will be a fourth. (Callow tells the story of the biography’s composition here.)
The standard story of Welles is that he was a great genius destroyed by the unimaginative rigidity of the American movie studio system. But it’s impossible to read Callow’s narrative — which is consistently admiring of and sympathetic to Welles — and come to any other conclusion than this: Welles destroyed his own career. Again and again and again his bosses told him that he needed to do certain things in order to fulfill contracts he had freely signed — to do the task he was being paid to do rather than chase other opportunities that he at the moment found more congenial — to stop spending other people’s money as thought it were his own. He simply never heeded any of these warnings, responding only when absolutely necessary but always in self-defense and even in some cases self-celebration. To put it simply: Welles could never be trusted to do what he was contractually obliged to do.
I think Callow sums up this element of Welles’s character incisively at the end of the second volume, when he is describing Welles’s divorce from Rita Hayworth:
The pattern of flight is unmistakable, one repeated from his relationship with Dolores del Rio, who by contrast with Rita Hayworth was emotionally mature, socially brilliant and a fine artist in her own right. She was neither neurotic nor needy; she simply required commitment from him. And that he would not give. Any form of limitation, obligation, responsibility or enforced duty was intolerable to him, rendering him claustrophobic and destructive. He could only function as a free agent, untrammelled by partners, children, wives, administrators, accountants, producers, studios, political mentors. He must go his own way. His motto might have been Aleister Crowley’s ‘Do what thou wilt shall be all the law’. In terms of his work as a director, that meant that he had, inevitably, to become an independent film-maker. Confinement, whether personal or professional, was unbearable to Orson Welles. His exploratory urges were central to his nature; he indulged them unceasingly for the rest of his life. Occasionally, something close to a masterpiece would result. But that was not the purpose of his journey through life. The doing was all.
This strikes me as inarguably true, and the keynote of Welles’s achievements and failures alike.
Nobody suffered more from Welles’s perversity of character than George Schaefer, the head of RKO studios, who brought Orson Welles to Hollywood — a decision that ultimately got Schafer fired. Callow’s summation of this initially exciting and eventually disastrous relationship also provides a brilliant capsule summary of Welles, to be set alongside the passage quoted above:
Welles, young and flushed with the sense of his own talents, paid lip service to these small qualifications, seeing RKO as an inexhaustible milch cOw. He rejoiced in Schaefer’s enthusiasm for him, and thought that by a combination of charm, bluster and a sly implication of complicity he could get exactly what he wanted, often saying one thing and doing the opposite, in the belief that he would always come up with the goods and that they would always be worth whatever they cost. But he was at the mercy of the nature of his own talent, depending on adrenalin and inspiration to bring off his effects. He had enormous difficulty in engendering material: his real gift was for editing, interpreting, transforming. A screenplay only existed, for him, as a suggestion a of a starting point, which would then acquire its character, its tone, its form and to a large extent its meaning from what he did with it in the act of creation. He could never supply anything to order. But Schaefer, as a businessman an investor, so to speak, in Welles had to believe that he could. The aggrieved letter that Schaefer sent him in Rio was an acknowledgement that the two men were not, in fact, partners at all. The terrible phrase ‘lip service’ sums up the older man’s sense of betrayal and disappointment. Had Welles been straight with Schaefer, had he listened to him, had he understood what a peerless and indomitable ally he had in him, had he grasped that there were limits to any enterprise funded by Hollywood, his history and that of Hollywood to say nothing of that of George Schaefer, might have been very different. Instead of being remembered merely as Citizen Kane’s midwife (who then heroically saved it from an untimely death), Schaefer might have been remembered — as he had dreamed of being — as usher-in of an altogether extraordinary period in the history of cinema.
(See how fine a writer Callow is? The bastard.)
One of the things that I especially enjoy about Callow’s narrative is how his experience as an actor, as a lifelong participant in the making of plays and movies, informs his approach to Welles’s career. This happens in large ways and small, but I especially enjoy the small. For instance, when talking about Joseph Cotten’s performance as Eugene Morgan in The Magnificent Ambersons, he notes that Cotten was asked to play someone about ten years older than he was, which, Callow says, is far more difficult than playing someone several decades older.
Similarly, he is very good on the ways in which casting decisions and decisions of interpretation are intertwined with one another. The Magnificent Ambersons again provides an excellent illustration: in Booth Tarkington’s novel, George Minafer is an elegant, epicene youth, a beautiful young man. But Tim Holt, the actor who portrays George for Welles, is stocky, blunt, straightforward – he gives the appearance not of an aristocrat but rather of a middle-class brat. Conversely, Cotten is a bit too elegant to portray the go-getting entrepreneurial energy of Eugene Morgan. The opposition between those two characters, so explicit and unavoidable in Tarkington’s novel, takes on a very different form in Welles’s movie, and indeed somewhat confusingly so.
Callow thinks Welles is an astonishing genius of a director, even if his indiscipline and need to be forever stimulated prevented him from doing the best work he was capable of. (At one point Callow quotes Welles saying that he wasn’t nearly as interested in finished products as in the process of working.) About Welles as an actor Callow is less enthusiastic but equally incisive. For Callow, Welles is a powerful but also a limited actor — a judgment with which Welles himself agreed: he was terribly insecure about his acting, never about his directing. (When performing in a movie or TV show he wasn’t directing, he was known to walk onto the set, take a look around, and then say to the director, “You’re going to put the camera there?”) I think one of the best illustrations of Welles’s strengths and weaknesses as an actor comes when Callow describes Welles as Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil:
Welles as Quinlan is an unforgettable portrait of corruption, physical and moral, but it is not a living one. If there is an actor whom he resembles it is [Marlene] Dietrich‘s old sparring partner in The Blue Angel, Emil Jannings, a performer likewise given to creating extraordinary shapes that he filled, not with lived life, but with a wealth of detail and a selection of off-the-peg emotions.
I could go on and on. These are fascinating books, and I think that when the story is completed, Callow will have written one of the finest biographies of our time, and an unrivaled portrait of one of the most distinctive figures in 20th century art and culture.