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’.

Citizen Kane locates its hero’s emptiness in early childhood loss. That Welles himself was orphaned early (his mother died when he was nine, his father when he was 15) Callow sees as the source of the extraordinary power of the movie’s childhood sequences, which are also much indebted to Agnes Moorehead’s aftecting performance as Kane’s mother. Thomson, too, discusses these scenes, but stresses the mother’s adamancy (‘I’ve got his trunk all packed. I’ve had it packed for a week now’) as well as her unhappiness. Welles’s own mother died young (or youngish – she was 42), but she wasn’t a victim. Daughter of a prosperous Illinois coal merchant, Beatrice Welles was handsome, dynamic and indefatigably improving, reading her son Shakespeare ‘before he could speak’. At 15, Callow comments, the boy’s manner resembled that of ‘an old buffer ... an Alexander Woollcott’, and Thomson notes that throughout his life ‘he adored and worshipped old age.’

Welles’s forced maturity was the work of both parents, from whom he learned to think of childhood as a form of illness or deficiency, a ‘pestilential handicap’. Welles’s rich but ineffectual father, Richard, an alcoholic and ‘natural citizen of the demi-monde’, loved his son, but was mostly legless in his last years, so that the son (himself capable of drinking ‘as much as two bottles of spirits a day’) became ‘parent to the parent’. Throughout his life Welles sought out surrogate fathers, in each case reproducing, or attempting to reproduce, this inverted relation. The mother despised the father, and was disparaging about Welles’s older brother, the ‘sullen and slow-witted’ Richard Jr. The older brother, only marginally less shadowy a figure in Thomson than in Callow, disappeared into an insane asylum at the age of 25, emerged ten years later (never once having been visited by his brother) to pursue an ‘erratic’ career as a social worker, and was somehow bilked of his inheritance, a pitiful seventh of the portion willed his sibling. Orson was the favourite, the petted and adored boy genius – but he had to perform.‘ The moment you became boring,’ Welles later recounted, ‘it was off to the nursery’ or worse. ‘That’s why I worked so hard,’ he elsewhere confessed, ‘that’s the stuff that turned the motor.’

Like Citizen Kane before them, both biographies suggest the hectic, greedy quality of Welles’s need to control, to eat up everything, obliterating rivals and even collaborators. Again, the urge to overwhelm or dominate underlies a variety of Wellesian peculiarities. To Bill Alland, a longtime Mercury colleague (Thompson in Citizen Kane, the shadowy reporter in search of Rosebud), it explains Welles’s difficulty memorising lines. Never quite knowing his lines prevented Welles from inhabiting a character, or ‘surrendering’ to it. ‘If he ever let himself go in a part he’d lose control,’ Alland comments, something he witnessed only once in the making of Citizen Kane, when Kane wordlessly destroys Susan Alexander’s apartment. As Callow explains,

a storm of pent-up violence was released in him as he staggered about the set, not entirely executing the right moves, smashing the furniture. As he came off the set, clutching the hand he had accidentally cut in the course of the carnage, he was trembling. ‘I really felt it,’ he said. ‘I really felt it.’ The scene, though not, Alland reports, as extraordinary as it was in the flesh, remains uncommonly disturbing, both frightening and feeble, a big man’s impotent rage against things.

Callow’s biography covers only the first 26 years of Welles’s life, from his birth in 1915, in Kenosha, Wisconsin, to the much delayed release of Citizen Kane in 1941, a period for the most part of uninterrupted triumph. Yet the seeds of the later decline – the failed and unfinished pictures, the wrangles over attribution, the chat-show appearances and sherry ads, the grotesque obesity (‘gluttony is not a private vice,’ Welles once declared) – are clear, the obverse of qualities at the heart of early successes. The young Welles had mesmeric charm and self-possession, commanding the spotlight in all settings: in the family, where Callow imagines it beating down on him ‘relentlessly’ (Thomson is less sentimental about the childhood); at the progressive Todd School in Illinois, where he was allowed to run ‘all the most public activities: the theatre, the literary society, the school magazine’; at the Gate Theatre in Dublin (not the more famous Abbey, as he liked to claim); in New York theatre circles, where he quickly became the toast of Broadway; then radio; then the movies. Callow (like Thomson) works hard to unpick the legend surrounding this progress – a legend embroidered by Welles himself – but its spectacular nature is undeniable.

Welles’s gathering attraction to Hollywood seems to have been fed as much by passionate technical curiosity as by a desire for stardom. ‘The best toy train set a boy ever had’, Welles’s much-quoted description of a studio, recalls the Spielbergian side of his character. Rehearsal for Welles, whether for theatre or film, was dominated by considerations of spectacle; the direction of individual stage performances was increasingly perfunctory, like Welles’s approach to his own acting. As director of the Mercury Players, he was preoccupied by set design (the more complicated and dangerous the better), make-up (he was a great expert on the false nose), lighting (Danton’s Death, a rare flop, had 350 separate lighting cues). Equally Spielbergian was Welles’s ‘high-concept’ approach to the classics, as in the notorious ‘voodoo’ Macbeth of 1937, for the Negro Theatre Unit, or the anti-Fascist Caesar of 1939, for the Mercury Players, both of which involved the radical simplification of the texts. Thomson reports a planned one-act Lear: ‘the whole violence are without an interval’. This highhandedness was consistently deplored by several critics – Mary McCarthy in particular. The biographers, too, deplore it, though Callow also stresses the boringly reverential nature of rival productions. Nor were subsequent film adaptions more restrained. ‘There is hardly an unspectacular shot in Welles’s Othello,’ Thomson rightly declares, ‘but there are seldom two or three in a row that make sense.’

Thomson’s biography is in some respects better on the life than Callow’s, which is dominated by detailed accounts of the inception, rehearsal, production and reception of Welles’s run of theatrical successes, and of his radio productions. Callow, for instance, tells us a great deal about Katharine Cornell, ‘First Lady of the American Stage’, and an important early mentor, but relatively little about Welles’s first wife, Virginia. Thomson makes Virginia a presence in the life. He’s also willing to speculate about the inner person, about how Welles felt at crucial moments (no easy matter, given Welles’s distrust of introspection and the instrumental, self-promoting character of his reminiscences). As for Welles’s sexuality, the latent homosexuality in particular, neither biographer offers much in the way of hard evidence, or new evidence. That Welles was aware of his appeal to homosexuals and played on it is clear; that he was ever actively homosexual is uncertain. He may have had an affair with the actor Francis Carpenter, described by Callow as ‘camp beyond the dreams of Quentin Crisp’. The homosexual directors of the Gate Theatre, Micheál MacLiammóir and Hilton Edwards, were clearly smitten, though as Callow fairly notes, ‘the sexual undercurrent’ in MacLiammóir’s account of Welles’s physical impact (‘small white teeth, a buckling up of the eyes into two oblique slits, a perplexed knitting of the sparse darkly coloured brows, and a totally unexpected darting forth of a big pale tongue’) reappears in heterosexual, or nominally heterosexual, contexts. John Houseman, for example, describes his impact in comparably physical terms, which may help explain the often abject or ‘unmanly’ character of his subsequent dependency.

Thomson doubts Welles’s homosexuality, though not his appeal to homosexuals. He also makes much of Welles’s compulsive womanising, the affairs with Dolores del Rio, Rita Hay-worth, Judy Garland, Eartha Kitt, Paola Mori, Oja Kodar and a host of ballerinas and showgirls. Immediately after shooting had finished on The Magnificent Ambersons, Welles flew to Rio de Janeiro to work on a government-sponsored documentary. When called back to Hollywood for crucial post-production work – in effect, to save the film – Welles refused to return. His manager explained this by screening some of the Rio footage. As Thomson recounts,

it was a scene shot live in a nightclub of chorus girls in skimpy clothes. Moss [the manager] had visited Welles in Rio once, the day they filmed that scene. ‘So he took me aside,’ said Moss, and he said, “I’ve fucked that one ... and that one ... and that one.” He’s not coming back. There’s no place in the world he can do what he’s doing there.’

The womanising may have been epic (‘Years of my life have been given up to it,’ he told Kenneth Tynan), but according to Thomson ‘nobody every got the impression that it mattered much.’ What mattered was the self, as validated in seduction. If Welles was gay, Thomson concludes, ‘he was gay in a way uniquely his: he loved himself.’

A similar solipsism bedevilled Welles’s working relationships. Though John Houseman, for example, provided qualities Welles lacked (principally a sense of reality, the producer’s attention to budget and deadline), Welles hated acknowledging this as much as he did any of his creative shortcomings. Gregg Toland’s smooth relations with Welles on Citizen Kane depended, Thomson suggests, on the veteran cameraman’s self-deprecation: he claimed he could teach Welles everything worth knowing about cinematography ‘in three hours’. Lesser collaborators were also tolerated, as long as their second-class status was clear. Hence, in part, Welles’s treatment of men like Stewart, the dubbing mixer, and his frequent problems with writers. Welles was as extreme a proponent of authorial or artistic autonomy – what Callow calls ‘that perennially sensitive matter in his life’ – as Coleridge, another needy orphan of sorts; but unlike Coleridge, Welles worked in a collaborative medium. It is little wonder that he was prone to Coleridgean misappropriation, false advertising, blockage and fakery (a subject he devoted a whole film to – the irritating F for Fake, which Thomson regards as ‘flawless’). After his reputation as the ultimate hyphenate – ‘actor-director-producer-writer – had been called into question in the late Thirties, after the War of the Worlds broadcast and the subsequent wrangle with Howard Koch over credits, Welles came to see any acknowledgment of collaboration as ‘a public humiliation’. ‘This is not vanity,’ Callow remarks, ‘it is terror.’

Both biographies offer detailed accounts of the genesis of Citizen Kane, openly acknowledging their debt to previous studies. Callow’s account draws not only on Pauline Kael’s controversial New Yorker article, ‘Raising Kane (1971, later incorporated in The Citizen Kane Book), which argues the case for Mankiewicz’s authorship, but on Robert Carringer’s The Making of Citizen Kane (1984), which takes the question of collaboration further still and stresses the decisive influence of financial, legal and other contingencies. When told the thesis of Carringer’s book, Welles responded predictably: ‘collaborators make contributions, but only a director can make a film.’ Unlike Callow, who calls the Carringer thesis ‘entirely convincing’, Thomson agrees with Welles, at least in respect of Citizen Kane, while praising his collaborators, especially Perry Ferguson, the picture’s art director.

Welles’s contributions to the script of Citizen Kane were secondary, those of an editor or adapter. Like Coleridge, however, Welles undervalued secondary processes – hence the wrangling over credits. Mankiewicz, most scholars agree, contributed the main story (including the Rosebud gimmick), the characters, many scenes and passages of dialogue, and what Welles himself especially valued: ‘a kind of controlled cheerful virulence’. Welles, Callow writes, then slashed through Mankiewicz’s text just as he had slashed through Shakespeare’s and Dekker’s. As with those writers, he added none of his own words, preferring to isolate or rearrange someone else’s. His skill and, equally important, his courage in this department was unparalleled.’ The script was cut from 268 pages to 172. In Thomson’s summary, Welles ‘rewrote a tragedy out of the original script’, but it would have been impossible to do so ‘without Mankiewiz’s groundwork’.

Thomson devotes half his book to the post-Kane period, the remaining 45 years of Welles’s life. The gathering dissolution of these years – the nomadic hotel existence, the discarded wives and children, the lost or forgotten film footage, the complimentary meals and constant scrabbling for money – is squarely faced, and leavened only by admiring accounts of several of the late films, or aspects of them, as well as of one or two late acting cameos, notably those for John Huston in Moby Dick and Fred Zinnemann in A Man far All Seasons. Late Welles emerges as a man ‘doing too much, too many small things’, frequently bored and impatient, no longer willing to sweet-talk executives or feign interest in commercial considerations. Though capable of bursts of heroic activity, he struck observers as spent rather than blocked. Again and again, work was left unfinished. The Magnificent Ambersons was only the first of several pictures Welles deserted in post-production: Macbeth was abandoned for a jaunt in Europe; Mr Arkadin for the Moby Dick cameo (£6000 for two days’ work); Touch of Evil for the Steve Allen Show (Welles left the film to be re-edited by the studio, which then shot new scenes to clarify the plot). In all these cases Welles complained, but the fault was importantly his own, a product not only of sloth, or sloth and fear (‘the very fact that he had to talk to the studio was scary to him,’ recalls the producer of Touch of Evil), but of simple-minded Romantic prejudice, against effort, finish, the market.

As Welles aged and his fortunes declined, traces of self-contempt began to distort his pictures, especially Mr Arkadin, Touch of Evil and Chimes at Midnight. Touch of Evil, Thomson argues, is ‘unbalanced’ by its loathing for the corrupt and ruined sheriff, Hank Quinlan, played by Welles himself. Though Welles pronounced Falstaff ‘almost entirely a good man’, his portrayal is grimly unexpressive. As Thomson puts it, ‘Falstaff is more than just the good man ... he is a drunk, a liar, a braggart, a coward, a bad influence and a thoroughgoing failure ... Falstaff was the Welles who owed money all over the world, who had abandoned and exploited associates, who had lied, tricked and feasted away the years.’ In other words, he was a mess; like Welles himself, the Welles who once told a late interviewer: ‘it’s wrong for a man to make a mess of himself, (they were discussing gluttony, about which Welles was uncharacteristically matter-of-fact: ‘I’m fat, and people shouldn’t be fat’). Thomson’s narrative of the later years provides other such moments of clear-sighted self-knowledge, as well as moments of bravery; and it reinforces Callow’s insistence on the indissoluble link between rise and fall, a product of appetite.

The styles of the two biographies reflect their differing judgments of Welles himself. Callow dedicates The Road to Xanadu in part to the memory of important collaborators, Micheál MacLiammóir and John Houseman. In doing so, he signals a commitment to values Welles and previous biographers, in particular Barbara Learning, have slighted: those of craft and co-operation. At the same time, he offers a newly complex and sympathetic understanding of the psychological origins of Welles’s behaviour. If Callow is fair to the collaborators Welles domineered and obscured, he’s also fair to Welles himself, a doubleness figured in his prose style, by turns florid (or Wellesian) and judicious, sometimes in the same sentence. Thomson’s style, in contrast, is wholly Wellesian, in part because his view of Welles, though critical, is less detached than Callow’s. Rosebud is crammed with stylistic tricks and gimmicks: irritating Ackroydian dialogues with an imagined publisher, interpretative sidebars, soliloquies, scraps of film dialogue and excerpted reminiscence. It’s also embarrassingly self-referential. Thomson regales us with his sensibilities as a 14-year-old and elsewhere declares: ‘I fear I’m like him.’ (‘As though the reader cared!’ snapped the New York Times reviewer.) Even simple exposition is hammy and portentous, in the manner of Welles’s ‘Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?’ Here is Thomson’s description of Welles’s arrival in Ireland:

If the hallowed tradition of biography sometimes appears to be jostled or pinched as we make our way – in other words, if unlikelihood casts a shadow on your pleasure – I ask you first to accept the idiotic and indecent fact that, on some day in August 1931, this hulk of a genius, alone, with a few clothes and paints, stepped ashore in Galway.

What makes overwriting like this a shame is the intelligence of the book’s analytical passages and its authors obvious mastery of the material. Callow, though, is more thorough, and he doesn’t make you cringe. Readers with patience – more patience than Welles, for instance – are advised to wait for Callow’s second volume. Greedier types – Wellesian types – can make do with Thomson.