What Haunted The Genius

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The New York Sun

What can it mean to call a biography definitive? Why the rush to anoint biographers in this manner? There is always more to learn: New letters and other documents turn up and fresh interviews can be conducted, not to mention the likely appearance of novel and provocative interpretations.

Yet Alistair Cooke hailed David Thompson’s “Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles” (1996), this way: “Definitive and unique. It is impossible to believe that anyone will ever again probe with such patience, eloquence, and insight into the life and work of this fascinating monster.”

At that time another contender, Simon Callow, had just produced “Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu” (1995), the first volume (which was 640 pages) of what originally promised to be a twovolume biography. The just published second volume, “Orson Welles: Hello Americans” (Viking, 508 pages, $32.95), covers only six years of Welles’s life, taking up the story where Mr. Callow left it in volume one, after “Citizen Kane,” and ending in 1947, when the legendary director begins a 20-year exile from his native land. So now, Mr. Callow explains, his biography will have to be completed in a third volume.

Why so many pages? Mr. Callow suggests his approach is the only way to recapture the texture of Welles’s life while scraping away the veneer of legend promulgated by his idolaters, especially Peter Bogdanovich. But Mr. Callow is not attempting to cut Welles down to size; on the contrary, the biographical subject takes on weight because of Mr. Callow’s approach.

Texture means, for example, providing a comprehensive view of what went into the making of Welles’s botched masterpiece, “The Magnificent Ambersons” (1942), including a full-dress rehearsal of the Booth Tarkington novel Welles adapted first as a radio play and then as a film script.

The legend has it that the studio decimated the film, downsizing a two-hour plus picture into 88 minutes because it was thought — especially at a time when the world was at war — to be too gloomy. But as Mr. Callow shows (relying, in part, on the work of film scholars), Welles bore considerable responsibility for the mutilation of his work. Instead of staying put and arguing for his vision in the editing room and with RKO studio executives, he was off to Brazil to film another epic, which also ended badly. Welles never took seriously enough his RKO contract stipulating the studio had the final cut. Instead, he thought he could take command of the editing by long distance telephone and telegram. He kept firing off suggestions for changes (some brilliant, some counterproductive) after the studio began to balk at his film’s bulk.

Welles knew he had produced a somber film that questioned the value of material progress and America’s love of the automobile, but he thought the quality of his work would win audiences anyway. Also, as Mr. Callow notes, reinforcing the theme of his biography: The film “perfectly fit into Welles’s over-arching fascination with what it is to be an American, a question given some urgency by the war.”

But if it fit so perfectly, why didn’t Welles stick around? “Perhaps to focus on ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’ to the exclusion of anything else would have been simply too disturbing, too painful,” Mr. Callow speculates. Another reason, the biographer suggests, is because Welles had ruled out starring in the film (he felt he was too fat for the character he should play) he had to employ his massive energies elsewhere.

Do these surmises help? I turned to see what that “definitive” biographer, David Thomson, might have to add. Curiously, I could not find his Welles biography mentioned in Mr. Callow’s second volume — not in the notes, not in the bibliography, or in the acknowledgments — even though in “The Road to Xanadu” Mr. Callow was scrupulous about acknowledging his debts to earlier Welles biographers and scholars, thus satisfying those who view biography as a cumulative and incremental art. Furthermore, Mr. Thomson had acknowledged Mr. Callow with these words: “I also thank a ‘rival,’ a man of great generosity and kindness, as well as the author of fine books — Simon Callow.”

Mr. Thomson is an elegant writer. As his “Biographical Dictionary of Film” demonstrates, he has an economy of phrasing that is every bit as good as Mr. Callow’s texture. Here is Mr. Thomson musing on why Welles chose to film “The Magnificent Ambersons”:

A great deal of Welles’s heart lies in Ambersons, and it is a heart that is conventional, nostalgic, romantic, and innately conservative. He was, in his own life, famous and feared as an innovator, a man of new techniques and approaches, an example of startling youth sweeping aside the past. That view was widely held, but it was one he never understood. So he was bewildered that so few recognized his fondness for the spirit of the past. Indeed that past — glowing, perhaps mythic and certainly impossible — was his best corrective to the despair he felt about progress and purpose.

The genius of this passage is then enhanced by a poignant account of Richard Bennett, a has-been matinee idol who Welles said demonstrated the “greatest lyric power of any actor I ever saw” in the important role of Major Amberson:

Welles treated him with love and respect, and gave him an epiphany, the scene in which the dying Major stares into the fire and tries to organize his scattered thoughts on what life is and where it comes from. This scene is in the book, but it is far more affecting in the movie because of its brevity, because of the image — the old white face, in darkness, illuminated by a flickering fire that mimics the sun he talks about — and because of Bennett’s face, and his bond with Welles. Bennett could never recollect the lines. So Welles read them to him, off camera, and Bennett repeated them. How Welles adored and worshiped old age and the somber luster of people at their close. There is nothing more moving in American film than the face of the Major and his halting words: ‘It must be the sun. … There wasn’t anything here except the sun in the first place. … The sun. … Earth came out of the sun. We came out of the Earth. … So, whatever we are …’

Thomson is a mesmerizing writer who knows how to build to a climax and make every detail count. For Welles aficionados, Mr. Callow is essential.For the rest of us, Mr. Thomson is the ticket.

The New York Sun

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