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)
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This article appears in the 18 Nov 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror