People shouldn’t be fat

Zachary Leader

  • Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu by Simon Callow
    Cape, 640 pp, £20.00, March 1995, ISBN 0 224 03852 4
  • Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles by David Thomson
    Little, Brown, 460 pp, £20.00, September 1996, ISBN 0 316 91437 1

By the end of his life Orson Welles weighed 350 pounds. His appetite, though, was not a late development. In Simon Callow’s biography the composer Virgil Thomson reports the 22-year-old actor-director devouring ‘oysters and champagne, red meat and burgundy, dessert and brandy’ immediately before squeezing into a canvas corset to play Brutus in Julius Caesar. Later in the run, Welles found time during the performance to nip behind the theatre to Longchamps Diner for a snack: ‘generally a triple-decker steak sandwich washed down with bourbon’. Lunch, ‘inhaled’ (this is David Thomson’s word) while rehearsing The Shoemaker’s Holiday, soon to be Welles’s second hit for the Mercury Players, was comparably stupefying. Callow depicts Welles perched at a table in the stalls, ‘roaring out instructions and mock abuse as he chomped his steaks and muffins and swilled brandy’. These instructions, an admiring co-worker recalls, were orders, not suggestions: ‘Orson only knew one way and that was “Now everybody keep quiet and I’ll tell you what to do.” That was his only way of working. He simply didn’t know any other.’

He was not much good at sharing either, as Howard Koch, Herman Mankiewicz, John Houseman and others discovered to their cost. ‘Orson’s concern was entirely for Orson,’ Joan Fontaine, his co-star in Jane Eyre, remembers. James G. Stewart, the veteran dubbing mixer on Citizen Kane, describes what it was like to work with him: ‘He’d make an appointment for 8 o’clock to run rushes. He’d show up at midnight. No apologies. Just “let’s get going now.” And we’d work to 3 or 4 a.m. He’d have a jug of whisky but no offering it to anybody else in the room. Just for Orson.’ Yet Stewart, too, admired his monster boss, attributing to him, according to Callow, ‘much of what he knows aesthetically about sound’.

That Welles was a self-conscious tyrant was crucial to his achievement. It may also explain his ambivalence towards acolytes and admirers, what Thomson calls his ‘dread of the thing most desired’. ‘I’m a king actor,’ Welles admitted in a late interview, ‘maybe a bad one, but that’s what I am, you see. And I have to play authoritative roles.’ He also understood the precariousness at the heart of such roles: ‘Truffaut was quite right when he says about me that I show the fragility of the great authority.’ Callow makes much of Truffaut’s point. In all Welles’s acting, he elaborates, we sense ‘a little boy rather desperately playing at being a king. Thus his portrayal of power comes to seem a critique of power’ – which, as Thomson amply demonstrates, is precisely the impression created not only in Citizen Kane and other films, but in the ignominious promos and product-endorsements of the final years. ‘He especially relished those voices of authority, the stamp of the network,’ Thomson writes, ‘the soft tones of wisdom and sincere recommendation – “We know a remote farm in ...” or even “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?” ’ Thomson relates this persona to Welles’s limitations as a comic actor: ‘Welles could and often did make fun of his characters, to prove his knowingness, but he could never let himself shine forth as weak, dishonest or stupid, someone to be laughed at.’

As so often with monsters of appetite – one thinks of Coleridge – there is anxiety behind the self-assertion. Welles the actor, an astute critic of Citizen Kane commented, ‘would be even more successful if he were willing to build his emotional scenes through the actor’s power to develop feeling from within himself. Instead he resorts frequently to the trick of bursting in with his lines without allowing another actor to finish.’ The impulse to dominate, in other words, issues from refusal or fear of depth; though as Callow rightly suggests, in the case of Citizen Kane, ‘it is at least possible that this is the very point that Welles wants to make.’ Pauline Kael seems to have had something like this in mind when she described the film as ‘a shallow masterpiece’ (Thomson thinks of cinema as shallow in any case, and Welles’s masterpiece as ‘the first movie to reveal that’). Despite the verve and dazzle of Citizen Kane, as Welles himself later admitted, there is ‘a curious iciness at its heart. It has moments when the whole picture seems to me to echo a bit. I was always conscious of footsteps echoing in some funny way.’ This impression of emptiness can also be linked with the film’s themes. ‘He couldn’t give love,’ comments Kane’s friend Jedidiah Leland, the Joseph Cotten character, ‘he hadn’t got any to give.’ Thomson identifies similar themes in the later pictures, describing the action of The Lady from Shanghai as ‘furious and empty’, the Falstaff of Chimes at Midnight as ‘portentous and hollow’, the ‘heart’ of Touch of Evil as ‘a black hole’.

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