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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 latest album, It Never Entered My Mind, is out now on Eidola Records and is on Spotify here.

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

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The Affair's Ruth Wilson: “All this is bringing women together... I hope it doesn’t end”

The actor on her new role as an abused sheep farmer in Dark River, the response to gender inequality and playing her own grandmother.  

At least part of the credit for Ruth Wilson’s extraordinary performance in Dark River is owed to a red-haired Border Collie. While she was in Yorkshire training to be adept at country life – shearing sheep, skinning rabbits, shooting guns and ratting houses – she worked with a sheepdog who seemed somehow as traumatised as the character she was preparing to play. “She was very skittish with humans,” Wilson recalls, “and wouldn’t look them in the eye. Her haunches would go down as if she’d been abused. And then on the field, she was focussed, aggressive, in control. So I based my character on her.”

The inspiration worked. As Alice, a skilled sheep shearer who returns to the farm she grew up on after her father dies, Wilson is tense and brittle, as though she might crumble to dust at any moment. For the past 15 years, Alice has been working around the world – New Zealand, Norway, “anywhere there’s sheep”, anywhere far away from the sexual abuse she was subjected to at the hands of her father (Sean Bean) as a child.

Her brother Joe, played with both tenderness and rage by Mark Stanley, has never left. He hasn’t forgiven Alice for leaving either, though neither of them is capable of articulating the potent mix of shame and resentment they feel. Just like in previous films by Clio Barnard, the heir to the gritty realist throne of Ken Loach, Dark River is driven as much by what isn’t said as by what is. “It’s sculpted,” says Wilson, “It feels like a held moment. There’s hardly any dialogue, but it just feels so full.”

We’re in a small office room in Covent Garden. Wilson’s been here most of the day, surrounded by pastries that she’s tried, and mostly failed, to foist on to journalists. When I turn down her offer too, she looks forlorn. “I ate half of one earlier, and they’ve brought a load of new ones,” she says with faux indignation. Doing press doesn’t usually fill Wilson with delight ­– even an endless supply of croissants can’t make up for the toil of being asked, again and again, about her personal life – and since she broke out as the psychopathic scientist Alice Morgan in BBC’s Luther, before landing starring roles in Anna Karenina, Saving Mr Banks, and on the hit Showtime series The Affair, she’s had to do a lot of it. But today, she says with a tone of surprise, is a little different. “I’ve sort of been looking forward to talking about this film.”

There’s certainly a lot to talk about. Dark River is a powerful but understated examination of abuse, and the psychological damage done when a person’s protector is also their abuser, their home also the site of their trauma. Alice is determined to fix the farm – which has fallen into disrepair while her father and brother have been in charge – but she can hardly stand to be there. The memories cling to it as stubbornly as the rats that have overrun it. “She can’t step a foot in that house,” says Wilson, “but she feels it’s what’s owed to her, so it’s that constant fight she has within herself. It’s a past, it’s a grave, it’s a memorial, but she has to come back and reclaim it in some way.”

Alice is also trying to reclaim the farm on behalf of her mother and grandmother, who once ran it. “She’s having to stand up to these men in every area,” Wilson says. “Whether it’s [the men] selling the sheep, or it’s her brother, or the guy coming to buy the land, everyone is a man that she’s having to kind of negotiate. She’s this woman struggling to have her own space and her own voice in a very male world.”

Wilson in a scene from Dark River. Credit: Arrow Films.

Through this film, Barnard wanted to explore objectification – both of the land and of the female body. “The way we objectify the countryside, and make it all seem beautiful and glorious, that’s what patriarchy has done to women for so long,” says Wilson, “objectify it, put it on a pedestal, [without seeing that] it’s much more complex than that, and it’s much more interesting and whole and full. Patriarchy has oppressed women and reduced them or undervalued them. It’s the same with the land, it’s much more brutal and complex than the beautiful countryside that we put on our posters.”

Wilson returns to the word “complex” throughout our conversation – in relation to the land, to the nature of victimhood, and to the relationship between Alice and her brother  –  but she rolls her eyes when I recall a quote from a recent profile: “Complex women are becoming something of a calling card for Wilson.” “People are complex aren’t they?” she says. “That’s what’s so annoying. Everyone is complex. We’re all a bit mad.” She thinks for a moment. “I suppose a lot of female parts are two dimensional. It’s not that there’s a certain brand of ‘complex woman’ to be played, [it’s that] so few people give female characters the time of day.”

The Affair, which made Wilson’s name in the US (after a potentially star-making turn alongside Johnny Depp in The Lone Ranger turned out to be a flop), lends equal weight to the inner workings of its two leads – a man and a woman, both battling demons, who cheat on their respective spouses with each other. But has Wilson seen progress, over the past decade, when it comes to the industry’s willingness to tell female-centric stories? The kind of stories that would pass the Bechdel test? “Uhh, no not really,” she says. “I mean that show fails the Bechdel test in every scene. If women do talk to each other, it’s about men.” A week or so after we speak, she reveals another of the show’s gender parity issues – that her co-star Dominic West earns more than she does, despite their equal billing.

Wilson in 2015 with her co-star from The Affair, Dominic West. Photo: Getty

Nevertheless she does hold out some hope that movements like Time's Up will finally accelerate the rate of progress, particularly when it comes to women's voices being heard. “Actually what is happening is that there’s a community of women now that are talking to each other. We haven’t had the opportunity to do that before; we’d be in competition with each other, or were made to feel that we were anyway. A consequence of all this stuff is that it’s actually bringing women together who are very talented, and they’re gonna support each other to make stuff for each other. I’ve never been in so many groups of women, and actually it’s been glorious. The piece I’m doing now is my own family history, but it’s all from the female point of view.”

That piece is The Wilsons, which Wilson is executive-producing and starring in as her own grandmother, Alison, who discovered on her husband’s deathbed that he was a spy in the inter-war years, had four wives whom he never divorced, and children with all of them. It’s a truth stranger than fiction. Last week, Wilson was auditioning boys to play her character’s son. So he’d be playing her real life father? “Yeah!” she laughs. “It’s so weird. I might have a breakdown at the end of it. If you never see me again, that’s why.”

Potential breakdown aside, Wilson is palpably excited about the project – particularly as it gives her the opportunity to centre women’s stories on screen. It’s the kind of work she’s confident this newly discovered support network is leading towards. “I hope this whole community just drives forward the female lens and the female experience,” she says. “I hope it doesn’t end, you know?”