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Liars on a grand scale

Philip Hoare investigates the tricky business of film biography The Real Life of Laurence Olivier by Roger Lewis, Century, pounds 17.99 Rosebud : The Story of Orson Welles by David Thomson, Little, Brown, pounds 20
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Roger Lewis dislikes the restrictions of biography, and scorns the petty conventions of chronology. But such conventions exist for a reason: they work and Lewis's account jumps about like a cricket on a hot plate; to misquote Dickens, it plays sad havoc with the tenses.

And yet - Lewis's empathy is admirable and his analyses of Olivier's oeuvre sincere. His headlong plunge into the world Olivier creates around himself in Wuthering Heights brings the performance to life; Olivier's Heathcliff "is not an ignorant and rude lot, he's a gypsy baron - indeterminate and with night hanging in his eyes", less felicitous are descriptions of Geraldine Fitzgerald's "washed-out, shagged-to-death look", or Gone With the Wind as "the most cumbersome and crappy film ever made". All good fun, but one longs for something less high-octane; just as one might have done in Larry's company. And like Lord Olivier, Lewis's own prejudices get the worse of him: discussing the intimate relationship between Olivier and Noel Coward, Lewis announces, "Homosexuality is a mockery of nature...a conspiracy....as bad as anti-Semitism."

David Thomson is also given to addressing his readers: "Orson Welles lied a lot you will see. You may even decide that he lied all the time as the only available way of keeping patience with life." Although as much a biographical dissenter as Lewis,Thomson allows the facts to speak for themselves in a vital account of Welles's rise and fall. Like his subject, Thomson becomes a showman, taking on Orson's mythomaniacal timbre: Welles does not eat a steak dinner, he inhales it. Having made his point about Welles's self-fantasy, are we then to place our trust in his champion? Another biographer's quandary. The reader - perhaps unreasonably - wants the truth, and the author knows it, worrying that "unlikelihood casts a shadow on your pleasure". The problem of how to portray a character who spent his life portraying other characters is addressed by both Lewis and Thomson, and both employ subjectivity in its solution, with varying degrees of success.

The highpoints of Thomson's book are naturally those of Welles's life. Welles's beginnings in theatre in Ireland and with his own company, Mercury, are vividly described; you can feel the man's energy. The War of the Worlds charade is a defining moment: Welles's sonorous interpretation deceiving a populous because of his authorial weight as a narrator in the March of Time newsreels. Welles' voice seems critical to his conception; that "superior fraudulence" which became as parodic as Olivier's.

And as with Olivier, the lure of the movies was a dubious siren career call. In Welles's entry into Hollywood, Thomson sees a "Faustian bargain", yielding theatre credibility for illusory screen success.

"People had to work hard to resolve to dislike Welles; otherwise they were seduced." Sexually, these included Dolores del Rio, Rita Hayworth, Vivien Leigh, Marlene Dietrich and Judy Garland; and most of those within a ten-year span. With Kane, both Welles and Thomson prove the power of that attraction: the sheer anarchic drive (fuelled by Benzedrine and two bottles of spirits a day), evading Hollywood's "industrial grip" to produce his masterpiece.

Thomson is not loathe to compare Kane with Welles, and the "dreadful, ruined narcissism" which would overtake the actor-film-maker-showman. With Kane's relative failure, Welles pursued the rest of his life at speed, "doing too much, yet not enough of it seemed worth the effort". Welles's weight became a carapace of disappointment: despite nearly-great comebacks such as Touch of Evil, the promise remained unfulfilled.