WALTER CARONE/PARIS MATCH VIA GETTY IMAGES
Show Hide image

Orson Welles in middle age

Orson Welles: One-Man Band by Simon Callow shows how Welles was an often chaotic yet masterful film-maker in his middle age.

By the end of the 1950s, Orson Welles was perilously fat. It hurt him to be reminded of it but what could he do? He had been scoffing whole chickens and plates of foie gras for lunch – and lunch could last all day, then lurch ponderously into the night. In Citizen Kane, Jedediah Leland (Joseph Cotten) finds his old friend Charlie (Welles) at his office, casually chomping away as dawn breaks outside. “Are you still eating?” he asks in disbelief. Charlie – soon to become the mythic newspaperman Charles Foster Kane – replies, “I’m still hungry.” Welles felt that hunger as much as Kane ever did and it rarely went away. But unlike the fictional Kane, who dies a thin man, Welles in middle age was now “a fastidious yet insatiable glutton . . . perilously fat”.

That acid description had oozed from the pen of Kenneth Tynan, who was making careers and causing backstage tantrums in roughly equal measure as a theatre critic at the Observer. Tynan had known Welles for a decade, having, as a young man, “materialised out of a puff of Paris fog” (or so Welles recalled it) to “bamboozle” the film-maker into writing a complimentary foreword for his first published book, He That Plays the King. Always attracted to those who disdained convention, Welles decided he liked this erudite, heavy-smoking boy from Birmingham and took his subsequent pronouncements on his work to heart.

It proved a dangerous decision, because Welles’s heart was mush. “Tynan says I’m an amateur,” he telegraphed his then patron Laurence Olivier when the reviews came in for his 1951 British stage production of Othello. Other reviews, some of them positive, were of little consolation. It was yet another case of “Et tu, Brute?” – betrayal at the hands of a disciple he had once inspired. A couple of nights after the offending article was published, the critic went backstage to greet his childhood hero. But as Elaine Dundy, Tynan’s wife at the time, remembered, “Welles uttered one word with a bellow that shook everything in the room that was made of glass: ‘Out!’”

Orson Welles the child prodigy, the visionary who had reinvented the stage for Roosevelt’s Federal Theatre Project, the prankster who had turned science fiction into fact with his newsreel-style War of the Worlds radio broadcast in 1938, the iconoclast whose final-cut contract had kept the fools and fuddy-duddies out of the studio long enough for him to rewrite the rules of Hollywood cinema in 1941 with Citizen Kane: that Orson Welles was still there, somewhere, underneath all those layers of perilous fat. It was perhaps the relatively recent memory of that glorious, youthful Welles that brought out the venom in his former idolaters. They betrayed him because he had betrayed them first, by breaking his early promise. Now, what films he was able to make tanked at the box office and his baroque style – which had once seemed so inventive – jarred with the “realism” touted by the Italians and the newly emerging Method actors.

Time and again, his best friends became his worst enemies (though, like Tynan, they could on occasion find themselves back in his favour). Most notable among them was John Houseman, the British-American actor with whom Welles had founded the Mercury Theatre in the late 1930s, and who followed him to Hollywood to “babysit” the alcoholic screenwriter Herman J Mankiewicz as he worked on Citizen Kane.

Houseman and Welles were, according to the biographer David Thomson in his 1996 book Rosebud, once so close that they were “sometimes reckoned as lovers by their colleagues”. When misbehaviour on both sides caused a rift, they did not drift apart but rather engaged in a sort of cold war. Shortly before Welles’s death in 1985, his protégé Peter Bogdanovich described Houseman as Welles’s “single most destructive enemy”.

Welles had a raging appetite for destruction as well as food. Simon Callow’s third volume of his definitive biography, spanning a typically busy period between 1947 and 1966, shows the actor-director-writer-magician-raconteur at his most charming and his most obnoxious. He had so many enemies, it seems, because he made them compulsively. His bullshit threshold was low, unless the bullshit was his own bullshit. Callow is a committed admirer of his subject but wisely tackles Welles’s “childlike elements” – his “tantrums”, his “cruelty”, his “destructiveness” – directly. “One cannot simply brush this side of his nature aside . . . for it explains a great deal of what it was like to be around Welles, and also a great deal of what it was like to be Welles,” he says in his introduction.

One-Man Band has been published to coincide with the centenary year of Welles’s birth and, like the earlier volumes, it brings to life the distinctly 20th-century milieu in which he lived. Welles raged in 1951 when Tynan labelled him an “amateur” but later gloried in that word (in the 1973 film F for Fake, he calls himself a “charlatan”). His amateurishness was what freed him from the stick-in-the-mud conventionalism that bored him to the point of anger; it emboldened him to reinvent and conquer almost every form he worked in, from the stage to radio and film. Here, Welles lights out for virgin territory once again, this time in Europe, to experiment with television on the payroll of the still-young BBC. No one had yet decided what TV should offer and amateurism was allowed, even invited, in a way that seems fantastical today.

Orson Welles’s Sketch Book was a simple show, in which he addressed the camera directly and improvised anecdotes about ballet, bullfighting, magic, murder – anything that piqued his interest at that moment. The premise sounds unremarkable now, when our airwaves are clogged with talking-heads programmes of all kinds, but in 1955 the plain-spokenness of Welles’s approach was revelatory. In comparison, similar shows by others had been “stiff affairs, essentially lectures”, Callow writes. “No one before Welles had understood the essential characteristic of television, its intimacy.”

The British viewing public agreed. “If Orson Welles were to join one or other of the two main political parties, I guarantee that some 15 minutes of him on television would sway the electorate for his side,” the London Evening News declared. He worked on a few other programmes but then his interest waned. So he ditched the medium (at least for the time being), burning bridges along the way, to pursue his true vocation: film-making.

The next Welles movie granted a US release was Touch Of Evil (1958) – the blackest in Hollywood’s noir cycle and perhaps the best. After a successful shoot, clashes with the studio over editing decisions led to the film’s stillbirth: it emerged as a B-picture on a double bill with Harry Keller’s now largely forgotten melodrama The Female Animal.

The narrative of Welles the genius was matched in his lifetime by another, equally powerful narrative: that of him as an unruly mess. He was pained by its corrosive influence when scrabbling for funding to make new work but he also encouraged it, habitually disappearing to prepare for other projects before whatever work at hand was completed, blowing budgets in pursuit of grand visions that no studio could afford to bring to the screen. Failure suited his romantic temperament; after all, what is more romantic than a ruin, a monument to some lost glory too perfect for this world of accountants and war and corruption?

Yet Welles was no failure. There’s an old Hollywood story about a producer who would give any movie, good or bad, a standing ovation because it was so difficult to get a film made at all. Welles completed 11 feature films, six of them masterpieces (Callow closes this volume with the greatest, Chimes at Midnight, in which Welles plays Shakespeare’s Falstaff). He urged us to think of his career as a series of what-ifs. By charming, bullying, wooing and betraying all around him, however, Welles often succeeded in satisfying his hunger for wonder – and we are all richer for his greed.

Orson Welles: One-Man Band by Simon Callow is published by Jonathan Cape (466pp, £25)

Yo Zushi’s latest album, “It Never Entered My Mind”, is released by Eidola Records

Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. His work as a musician is released by Eidola Records.

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror

Donmar Warehouse
Show Hide image

Limehouse raises the question of when party loyalty becomes political irresponsibility

Labour's “Gang of Four” are brought to life brilliantly at the Donmar Warehouse.

A star of the Labour Party right wing, exiled from the shadow cabinet for deviating from the dominant orthodoxy, rants about how a decent but weak Labour leader, with an election-losing anti-European, anti-nuclear manifesto, risks letting the prime minister get away with whatever she wants.

Laughter shows that the audience gets what the dramatist Steve Waters is up to. Limehouse takes place on 25 January 1981, when a gentle veteran, Michael Foot, seems to be leading Labour to such sure oblivion at the next election that Dr David Owen has summoned his fellow moderates Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and (just back from a stint running Europe) Roy Jenkins to Sunday lunch in his kitchen in east London. This meeting led the “Gang of Four”, as they became known, to make a statement of estrangement from Labour that heralded the creation of the Social Democratic Party.

Waters was inspired by a New Statesman interview in which Rodgers wondered if the left-right divide under Jeremy Corbyn might justify a similar evacuation of the pragmatists now. The debates that the play stages – fidelity to party and national tribes against a fear of political and historical irrelevance – feel hotly topical.

Williams, considering an offer to abandon Labour and teach at Harvard, faced then the dilemma of an Ed Balls or Tristram Hunt now. And Labour members today who fantasise about a new progressive grouping might reflect that, while the SDP briefly seemed a plausible alternative to Thatcherism (winning 7.8 million votes at the 1983 election), the middle-class revolution was squeezed externally by two-party domination and internally by disputes over leadership and direction.

But, for all the parallel relevance, the success of Limehouse ultimately depends on the convincing re-creation of an era and its people. Enjoyable period details include the luxury macaroni cheese to a recipe by Delia Smith that Debbie Owen, Delia’s literary agent, chops and fries on stage to fuel her husband’s discussions with his three wary comrades. Waters also skilfully uses the mechanics of a pre-digital world – having to go out for newspapers, going upstairs to answer a phone – to get one character out of the way to allow others to talk about them.

As a good playwright should, Waters votes for each character in turn. Owen, though teased for vanity and temper, is allowed a long speech that honours his status as one of the most memorable orators in modern British politics. Tom Goodman-Hill samples Owen’s confident baritone without going the whole Rory Bremner.

Playing Jenkins, a man celebrated for both a speech defect and rococo cadences, Roger Allam has no choice but to deliver the voice perfectly, which he does. Waters carefully gives the character an early riff about the “crepuscular greyness” of Brussels, allowing Allam to establish the w-sounds and extravagant adjectives. Actor and playwright also challenge the assumption that for Jenkins both to love fine wine and to advocate social justice was inevitably a contradiction.

Debra Gillett refreshingly avoids the scattiness that caricaturists attribute to Williams, stressing instead her large brain and deep soul, in a portrayal that increases the sense of shame that the Tories should lead Labour 2-0 in the score of female prime ministers. As Rodgers (in Beatles terms, the Ringo of the confab four), Paul Chahidi touchingly suggests a politician who knows that he will always be a bag-man but still agonises over whose luggage to carry.

Unfolding over 100 minutes, Polly Findlay’s production has a lovely rhythm, staging the delayed entrances of Jenkins and Williams for maximum impact. Biodramas about the living or recently dead can be hobbled by a need to negotiate objections of tact or fact. Politicians, however, often purchase even the rudest cartoons of themselves for the loo wall, and the real Owen, Williams and Rodgers laughed warmly during, and strongly applauded after, the first night.

At an impromptu press conference afterwards, a genial and generous Owen astutely observed that what at the time was “a very happy day in our house” has been dramatised as tragicomedy. But, regardless of whether Marx was right about history repeating itself the second time as farce, the possibility that farce is being repeated in Labour Party history has encouraged a compelling play that is sublimely enjoyable but also deeply serious – on the question of when loyalty to party can become disloyalty to political responsibility.

“Limehouse” runs until 15 April

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution