Book review: Simon Callow explores Orson Welles’ audacious middle years

In the third volume of his biography of the giant of theatre, radio and film, actor Callow covers Welles’ independent years from 1948 to 1965, in many ways his most interesting and frustrating

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 April, 2016, 12:02am
UPDATED : Thursday, 28 April, 2016, 12:02am

Orson Welles, Volume 3: One-Man Band

by Simon Callow


4/5 stars

Most of what’s written about Orson Welles centres on his boy-genius period.

You know: the man with the cherubic face and wicked grin who, by the age of 26, rewrote the rules on Broadway, destroyed the world before our very ears (the War of the Worlds broadcast) and made what some consider the best American film of all time (Citizen Ka ne).

(Among the best early-Welles studies is film historian Patrick McGilligan’s Young Orson, a richly detailed biography published last year by Harper. McGilligan is based in the US state of Wisconsin, where Welles was born.)

Book review: Life of Orson Welles on the way to greatness looks beyond the caricatures

Simon Callow started that way, too. In 1996, he published Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu, which, like McGilligan’s Young Orson, tells his story through Citizen Kane in 1941. At the time, Callow, an actor most remembered for performances in movies such as Four Weddings and a Funeral, envisioned Xanadu – an alluring read – as the first of a two-volume biography.

It didn’t work out that way. Vol. 2, Hello Americans, came out in 2006, covering Welles’ fall from grace from 1941 to 1947. That left 38 years, since Welles died in 1985.

Vol. 3, Orson Welles: One-Man Band, focuses on 1948 to 1965, a period bracketed by two of Welles’ Shakespeare-rooted obsessions: Othello and Chimes at Midnight, Welles’ brilliant stitching together of the story of Falstaff. (Vol. 4, Callow vows, will cover the final 20 years of Welles’ life.)

In many ways, the period covered in One-Man Band shows Welles at his most interesting, and most frustrating. He was on his own, free at last. Unfortunately, getting the financing to make that viable was as big a challenge as the work itself, and it didn’t help that his need to be larger than life made him as many enemies as it did admirers.

Like many of the people and players in Welles’ orbit, Callow wrestles with his fascination with Welles, in whom flashes of genius are balanced against really, really bad behaviour – like a king in exile “who still considered himself king,” according to one Hollywood director Welles worked with, Richard Fleischer.

In this period of his life, more than any other, Welles’ fevered mind cooked up productions that seemed to defy the laws of arts and pop-culture physics.

Take Time Runs, a theatre production created for the Paris stage in 1950. The play was “based on the works of Milton, Dante and Marlowe”, with Welles as Doctor Faustus and a choir including the young Eartha Kitt. When Welles began to fall for Kitt, he drafted Duke Ellington to write five songs for the show, principally for her.

Even more improbable was the 1956 revue Welles staged for three weeks at Las Vegas’ Riviera Hotel: part magic show, part readings from Shakespeare, and the latter stuff “really wowed the gamblers, the gangsters and their guests ... ,” Callow recounted.

Those kinds of audacious projects dot the years covered in One-Man Band. Again and again, Callow recounts Welles’ improbable ventures, some – like the Don Quixote film he never completed, or Chimes at Midnight, which he worked on off and on for decades – that consumed Welles and challenged his creative impulses.

Orson Welles Volume 2 - Hello Americans

Callow also recounts the back stories – many of them contradictory – behind Welles’ occasional successes: his iconic performance as Harry Lime in The Third Man, the thriller he didn’t direct but with which he was most identified; Touch of Evil, the 1958 crime classic that proved to be the last movie Welles directed in Hollywood; and Chimes at Midnight, which Welles considered closest to his heart and Callow calls his masterpiece.

Through it all, Callow shows that Welles defied easy analysis or explanation.

“It is characteristic of many of Welles’ commentators that they select one or other of the many Welleses as quintessential,” Callow accurately writes, “but the mystery of the man is that all the Welleses co-exist; all are true.”

Tribune News Service