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Orson Welles: Hello Americans by Simon Callow
Genius without portfolio
Sunday 07 May 2006
Simon Callow starts this second volume of his biography of Orson Welles almost with an apology. How can he do justice to the boundless output of such a singular subject? He decides that the only way he can keep faith with Welles' largesse is to devote over 400 pages to a mere seven years of the life of the "genius without portfolio". Is Callow's own largesse justified? Undoubtedly yes, for he has to unravel and explain so many complex endeavours, undertaken in explosive bursts over such a short period of time, that lesser writers would have restricted themselves to Welles in Hollywood and ignored all his other outlets.
Callow, moreover, is adamant that we cannot hope to understand what Welles hoped to achieve if we forget that his career, whether as writer, director, actor or commentator, was always fuelled by liberal, inclusive politics. Indeed, rather than being a tawdry kiss-and-tell account of an actor, this is an inspiring political biography
Callow recounts that, ever since since Welles made Citizen Kane in 1941, no one in the history of cinema has created a comparable impact with a single film. Yet acclaimed as he was at 26, Welles' revolutionary debut marked an end, not a beginning. He had been given unprecedented latitude by RKO for the production, provoking resentment both inside and outside the industry, and from then on every film that he made in Hollywood was a massive struggle against the odds. By most accounts, Welles second film, The Magnificent Ambersons, was another masterpiece, though we can't really know since a quarter of Welles' original version was cut by the studio. (Welles broke down in 1984 when he heard that all the cut footage had been destroyed by RKO.)
After various studios truncated Welles' films of the 1940s, such as The Stranger and The Lady from Shanghai, Callow concedes that the results invariably have to be "discussed in terms of what might have been rather than what is." Yet this is the common experience of most film-makers in Hollywood. However, it was also the mould, as Callow points out, that Welles was supposed to have broken with Citizen Kane.
Callous and ultimately wasteful as Hollywood's treatment was of Welles, this is a story that has been told in other biographies as well as in Welles' own words in the Bogdanovich book, This is Orson Welles. Where Callow deviates from convention is in his reliance on Welles' political evolution to explain his subject's artistic developement. Fully half of this book is devoted to Welles' campaigns - for racial equality, better working conditions and international co-operation, and the emphasis is justified since Welles studied and intervened in political events more consistently than any other Hollywood personality of his time.
For Callow, Welles' strength as an actor was rhetorical, and it was this trait that marked him out as one of the greatest orators of his age. It is difficult for us to gauge just how popular a politician he was. In a class of his own, he barnstormed across America during 1944, speaking out for Roosevelt's re-election with such effect that thousands called for "Welles in '48".
He could also chill with a quiet comment. Campaigning a year later for a black soldier, who was blinded by a policeman within five hours of being discharged by the Army, Welles declared, "He was just another white man with a stick who wanted to teach him a lesson - to show him where he belonged: in the darkness." Asked what business this was of a Hollywood actor, Welles replied, "The blind soldier fought for me during this war. The least I can do now is fight for him."
For a so-called "Hollywood ham", Welles also showed rare political prescience. He remarked that if indeed the predicted "American century'' did come about, "We'll make Germany's bid for world supremacy look like amateur night. And the invitable retribution will be on a comparable scale." Unfortunately, as the temperature of the Cold War soared, Welles foresaw the impending dissolution of the vital alliance between America's liberals, radicals and Communists. The political movement to which he belonged and believed in - the Popular Front - was about to be destroyed and would in fact never return in the same unified form to the US. It is this social context that brings Callow's biography to life. Rather than the usual listing of a star's films and love life, here we are given a passionate vivid retelling of the events that really mattered at the time. This is a bitter-sweet book: we say goodbye to the very best of company but we also look forward to Callow bringing that company back to life in his third volume.
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