Sunday, May 1, 2016


This week I finished the third installment in Simon Callow's projected four volume biography of Orson Welles. If four books on one life seems like a lot, consider the life we're talking about. No matter what one thinks about Welles or his work, one has to concede the point that the man packed a hell of a lot of living into his brief 70 years on earth.

Just consider this: Callow's new book covers the years 1948 to 1965. In that time, Welles worked on three continents (North America, Europe, and Africa), made five movies--three of which are masterpieces (TOUCH OF EVIL, THE TRIAL, FALSTAFF), mounted seven stage productions--two of which (MOBY DICK REHEARSED and CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT) are considered among the best work he did in the theater, and created five television productions--two of which (THE FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH and AROUND THE WORLD WITH ORSON WELLES) are thrilling experiments in the new medium. During this time he won the Palm d'Or (for his film of OTHELLO), the Peabody Award (for THE FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH) and the Best Actor award at Cannes for his performance in the movie COMPULSION. During this time he became the hero of critics and directors of the French New Wave, the living embodiment of the film director as artist. 

It was also during this period, unfortunately, that he became enshrined in America as a big fat has-been. One of the reasons Welles makes for an endlessly fascinating biographical figure is that his triumphs were often greeted as failures and his artistic prime was regarded by many at the time as a self-destructive freefall.

The disjunction between Welles's artistic accomplishments and his professional woes is covered thoroughly by Callow in ONE-MAN BAND. Callow is a critical biographer, and one can feel his exasperation at some of Welles's more self-defeating behavior. Yet he never loses sight of the man. For instance, I've read a couple dozen books on Welles, but I don't think I've ever read anyone who better captured Welles's insecurity around the topic of acting. Perhaps because Callow is an actor himself, he is particularly well-attuned to Welles's fear of performance. We think of Orson Welles as being almost supernaturally confident and self-possessed, but as Callow makes clear he fretted his time upon the stage as much as any actor ever did.

Every biography about Welles has to contend with one core question: Was he a self-destructive failure or a misunderstood genius? Callow avoids an easy answer, but taken in whole this book's answer to that question would be "Both."

Welles was his own worst enemy, a "prisoner of his own personality" as Callow once put it in an interview. He worked in art forms like film and theater that require a lot of capital, yet he loathed the money men and found it impossible to kowtow to them. He was a tireless worker, but no one ever accused him of self-discipline. He was always open to inspiration, but that same openness could mean that his attention was fickle. His list of credits is beyond impressive, it's staggering; yet that same prodigious output was often seen by unsympathetic observers as flailing.

Indeed, one thing that Callow's tour through these years makes clear is the way that Welles's triumphs must have all seemed fleeting to the man himself. His greatest accomplishment of this period (and perhaps the greatest accomplishment of his career) was FALSTAFF. It's his masterpiece, but in America it was dismissed out of hand. Welles, Callow reports, was nearly driven to despair by this failure, a failure that came in the wake of the failure of the brilliant TOUCH OF EVIL to rekindle his Hollywood career.

Still, Callow ends this volume on the triumph itself. Welles once said that FALSTAFF was the film he would offer up if he were told that one of his films might get him accepted into paradise. Callow ends his book by reporting that the movie "proved not to be a harbinger of anything; Welles sailed off in other directions. But not before he had secured his place in heaven."

No comments: