The legend and the lifetime: the first part of a new biography of Orson Welles debunks some old myths surrounding the man

ORSON WELLES spent his life confounding and clouding the idea of biography. His movies tease and deceive our notions of the knowable. "What does it matter what you say about people?," asks Marlene Dietrich at the end of Touch of Evil, as the body of Welles's Hank Quinlan floats down the river. Not a lot, was the answer provided by Citizen Kane, since anything you say can be gainsaid by a myriad other accounts. "I don't think one word can sum up a man's life," concluded the reporter in Kane. How about 300,000 words - Simon Callow's summing up of just the first 26 years of Welles's life, in Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu? I doubt whether Welles, who believed the human personality to be infathomably mysterious, would reckon even that adequate. His own accounts of his life were stronger on legend than logic. Magician, hoaxter, trickster and liar, he always mischievously ensured that a key note was F for Fake.

Callow is a canny, wary biographer. He sees his task as to separate Welles from his legend - the man from the myth which was often of his own making. You can understand Callow's concern, when you read the sort of newspaper articles that were floating, on clouds of their own hyperbole, around Hollywood while Welles was making Kane: "He talked like a college professor at two. At three, he looked like Dr Fu Manchu and spouted Shakespeare like a veteran..." Prodigy, genius, innovator: these are the tags most often applied to the young Orson - and the ones that Callow is most chary of. Sometimes he resembles his near namesake, Colonel Calloway in The Third Man, closing in on Harry Lime, nailing the cold destroyer behind the flamboyant charmer. Callow wavers over whether he thinks Welles is a great artist. He is never in any doubt that he is a supreme bullshit artist.

So we get the familiar journey around Welles - from Kenosha, Wisconsin, where he was born in 1915, to the making of Citizen Kane, in 1941 - but with some of the more improbable detours closed off. At every step, Callow is there to tell us that the view is not as magnificent as it might seem. The infant Orson could hold forth fluently and eruditely on any subject, but "without much thought". Callow detects, almost from the beginning, more sonority than sense: "He was precocious verbally, not intellectually; and he was not prodigious." Callow believes that the problem with the Welles myth, which was in bloom by the time Welles was ten, was that it imposed impossible standards. Forced from childhood to live up to being a phenomenon, Welles was denied the time to develop as an artist. The question most people ask about Welles is: "Where did it all go wrong?" Callow's answer is that it was never all right.

Callow lays heavy emphasis on the way Welles fed his own legend. When Welles played at the Gate Theatre, Dublin, at the age of 16, Callow claims that he was already giving stories to the press. The truth was too plain a thing for Welles not to embroider a little, and Callow's thesis is that Welles began to believe his own publicity. This is at the nub of the debate about Welles's authorship of his work. Callow reckons that Welles had nothing to do with the writing of The War of the Worlds radio broadcast which panicked America in 1938 (though his evidence is one secretary's testimony), and not much to do with the script of Citizen Kane (though Welles's contributions, if few, were clearly crucial). But to remain in everybody's eyes a genius, he had to claim authorship of both.

Likewise, he had to be new and original, claiming innovations which weren't strictly his. The revolutionary deep-focus photography on Citizen Kane was largely the brainchild of the cinematographer, Gregg Toland; Welles wasn't the first to think of setting Julius Caesar in jackboots, as he did in his celebrated anti-fascist Mercury Theatre production of 1939; nor was his bold use of narration in radio unprecedented. Welles was not an innovator, according to Callow, but a "fulfiller" - superb at bringing to fruition other people's ideas. He had the imagination and stubbornness to stretch and finesse his collaborators' inspiration. Callow is always at pains to give these collaborators - especially Mercury producer John Houseman and writers Howard Koch and Herman Mankiewicz - their share of the limelight, after long years in Welles's broad shadow.

Callow makes a shrewd and persuasive case. But there are dangers in his approach. He runs the risk of seeming churlish, if not downright hostile towards his subject. His method is so corrective that it can take Welles's great gifts for granted. And he finds it hard to praise without qualifying. This means that the writing can be perceptive, generous and grudging within the space of a few sentences. Here he is on an early Welles essay on Shakespeare:

"This is the first fully fledged example of the characteristic Orsonian manner: sweeping, rhetorical, perfectly adapted to his own cadences, knowing, lofty, echoing with other men's phrases, infectiously exhilarating. It is, in fact, actorly - but like a 50-year-old actor. Eloquent, certainly, but perhaps a little too instantly eloquent: verbal monosodium glutamate." What the good Simon giveth, he taketh away, but in fact it is Callow's own manner - puffed-up, seigneurial and judgmental - that can become grating.

However, Callow has a gift for bringing a character alive in a paragraph or two of potted biography and psychology. He is particularly good on Hilton Edwards and Micheal Mac Liammoir, who ran the Gate Theatre in Dublin. They were friends of Callow, and erstwhile friends and colleagues of Welles. The book at times feels biased towards their story: a vindication. Sometimes they and other superbly sketched members of the supporting cast - Bernard Herrmann, Marc Blitzstein, Joseph Cotten, Howard Koch, Agnes Moorhead, Richard Wright - shine more brilliantly than the star. Callow's fight for the reputations of Welles's collaborators can leave Welles himself strangely side-lined.

In curbing the myth of Welles, Callow may have missed something of the man. He rightly points up the havoc caused to Welles's colleagues and loved ones by his carousing and philandering, but he does not give us enough of Welles's sheer joie de vivre, his exhilarating sportiveness - the quality that led Kenneth Tynan to declare that whenever he set to thinking of the one person who could brighten his day, it always ended up being Orson. When Callow tells an amusing story - such as Welles's comment on having eaten a blow-out meal before a performance of Julius Caesar: "It's lucky I'm playing tragedy tonight, which needs no timing" - it is to show up Welles's lack of commitment. Callow quotes someone as saying that Welles's theatrical rehearsals were full of laughter. There is a dearth of it in this book.

There are other aspects of Welles that seem under-explored (perhaps they will be treated in Part Two). Writing about Welles's 1941 theatre production of Richard Wright's Native Son, Callow alludes to Welles's "deep and life- long loathing of racism". It would have been interesting to have more on this, and on the moulding of Welles's liberal politics. More could be said too about Welles's love of magic, which Callow seems to acknowledge as a key to his work, without troubling to turn it.

Callow is too dismissive of Welles's writing: "A pervasive sense of dj lu hangs over everything he wrote." Callow turns some sparkling epigrams of his own ("To direct is human; to edit is divine"), but the most dazzling passage in the book is an extract from an essay Welles wrote on flash- backs.

Welles aficionados may not find a huge amount of startlingly new material here, but Callow is a fine organiser and interpreter of familiar sources and all the material he employs is transformed by his actor's insights. He also makes lavish use of contemporary critics' accounts to build up a picture of what those trail-blazing Mercury Theatre productions between 1936 and 1941 - and before them the Negro Theatre Unit Macbeth - were really like. While acknowledging their excitement and inventiveness, he concludes that, as with all Wellesian things, they were stronger on style than content.

Callow draws on Welles's earlier biographers, and maintains a joshing relationship with Welles's official chronicler, Barbara Leaming, whom he persists in referring to as Mrs Leaming, and with Frank Brady ("the good professor"). He is a bit full of himself, but with justification. He has dug deeper and thought harder than his predecessors. None of the others rootled out the long-running hostility of Mary McCarthy to Welles's theatre. Nor did any of them provide Callow's detailed critique of Welles's early radio work, especially a seven-part adaptation of Les Misrables, which makes you want immediately to hear it; or his careful assessment of the books on playing Shake-speare which Welles illustrated and co-authored when still in his teens. He is as acute analysing critically (marvellous on the music in Citizen Kane) as psychologically. He has got closer than anyone to Welles's relationship with his scape-grace father, his need for father figures, and the pressure of his mother's ambition, even after her death.

Callow spreads his canvas wide, to give the context of Welles's life. He knows how central America is to any account of Welles. Welles might have said, as Kane did: "I am, have been, and will be only one thing - an American." We get a sense of the Midwest of Welles's youth, that of Fitzgerald and Nelson Algren. But at other times research swamps the narrative. While giving much space to Otis Ferguson's obtusely hostile review of Citizen Kane, Callow throws away his own fascinating thesis - that the film is "about size and the doomed quest for significance" - in a sentence.

Callow points to the coldness in Citizen Kane ("He couldn't give love," Jedediah Leland recalls of Kane. "He hadn't any to give"); in this book, Callow seems to withhold love from his subject. It may be he feels Welles has been overfted. He shows what a consummate seducer Welles was; although he liked to think of himself as the innocent object of infatuation, whether sexual or professional, Callow argues that he was in fact very manipulative, and that the great partnerships of his career (especially that with John Houseman) had the dynamics of love affairs. Callow is determined not, in any sense, to be had.

But, with Welles, conventional biography that holds him to his every weasel world is doomed to disaffection. Analyse any one of his talents and you hit upon something pretty ordinary underneath the gilt. It was the multiplicity that was so extraordinary. Kenneth Tynan, in his letters, tells a story about Welles listing his accomplishments to an audience, before leaning forward and declaring: "Isn't it a pity there are so many of me and so few of you?" There's the rub. But isn't that effortless prolificity what we call genius? Callow compares Welles to Oscar Wilde (both hoist by their own publicity). Yet Wilde wrote: "The greatest men fail, or seem to have failed." Callow understands Welles's fascination, in his life and his work, with the price paid for greatness - notably in the Faust myth - but he is intolerant of Welles's own (seeming) failure.

If I sound disgruntled, I have to admit that I, unlike Callow, was seduced long ago - by the movies and by the man, whose interviews were among his most incandescent performances. Callow's book will be painful to those who cherish Welles. He has become a symbol, a sort of creed. Citizen Kane is the exception to the rule of the studio system, a masterpiece of the collaborative art, and Welles's later failure is an indictment of the moguls. Our love for Welles goes hand in hand with our contempt for Hollywood. It is galling to find, then, that the fault lies as much in himself as in the land of the stars. But Callow's case is sound. He has given us the fullest and frankest account of Welles. Tynan once described Welles as: "a superb bravura director, a fair bravura actor, and a limited bravura writer; but an incomparable bravura personality." In Simon Callow, Welles has found a bravura, if sceptical, biographer.

8 `Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu' by Simon Callow is published on Thursday (Cape £20)

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