Monday, April 4, 2016
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.
“ROSEBUD – The Story of Orson Welles” by David Thomson (first published in 1996); “DESPITE THE SYSTEM – Orson Welles Versus the Hollywood Studios” by Clinton Heylin (first published in 2005)
Over four years ago on this blog I wrote a pair of think-pieces about the writing of biographies. They were called Why Writea New Biography? and The Toil ofBiography, and they express views that I would still defend. One of my main contentions was that, if a genuine biography of somebody has already been written, there is little point in writing a new biography of that person unless real new material has come to light or unless the biographer wishes to give a radically new interpretation of the subject’s life. I am talking here, of course, about scholarly and well-researched biographies. I know that most “biographies” on publishers’ lists are rip-off jobs, compiled largely from secondary sources, and are not worth serious consideration.
I set off on this line of thinking once again when I looked along my shelves and saw that I had a number of biographies of Orson Welles, which I have read in the past two decades. My thirty years of film-reviewing mean that I have shelves devoted to film and film-makers. That includes analyses of Orson Welles’ movies, beginning with Joseph McBride’s handy little study Orson Welles (first published in 1972 when Welles was still alive); and The Citizen Kane Book (first published in 1971, ditto), which includes the full shooting script and continuity cutting script of Citizen Kane; but which also includes Pauline Kael’s iconoclastic essay “Raising Kane”. This essay still makes Welles-worshippers go ballistic and burst blood vessels, because Kael argued that the whole conception of Welles’ masterpiece was more the work of the main scriptwriter Herman Mankiewicz than of Welles himself. (The argument about this still rages. It is something akin to the argument about John Fuegi’s excellent Brecht and Co, which revealed how much of “Bertolt Brecht’s” plays were written by his collaborators.)
I am not talking here about these studies of Welles’ films, however. I am talking about biographies of Welles.
David Thomson’s Rosebud – The Story of Orson Welles (1996) and Clinton Heylin’s Despite the System – Orson Welles versus the Hollywood Studios (2005) argue diametrically opposed views about Welles, and as such they earn their place as biographies worth writing.
Let me clear the ground here a little.
The more hagiographic view of Welles is that his genius was wilfully destroyed by the Hollywood system, and that therefore his potential career as a great film director was thwarted. The young 25-year-old Wunderkind comes to Hollywood after staging his exciting and innovative stage productions, and after scaring New York with his radio version of H.G.Wells’ War of the Worlds. He directs his great masterpiece Citizen Kane. But the film makes him enemies and the studio bosses gang up against him. His second film, The Magnificent Ambersons, is mutilated by the studio’s re-editing. He is reduced to cheaper productions, vilified by the press and eventually forced out of America by Hollywood’s refusal to recognise genius when it sees it. He makes the rest of his career in Europe, scrimping and scrounging for the budgets of films he really wants to make. Often he does this by taking acting jobs in films he doesn’t really like. Only once, almost by accident, does he again get to direct a film in Hollywood, and it’s a goodie – the last real noir, Touch of Evil. Despite this, going his own way in Europe, he manages to direct some good films. Told thus, the story of Welles becomes the exemplary tale of a crass, commercial film system bearing down on a great creative talent. Welles as sacrificial victim in the cause of Art.
The counter-narrative is radically different. I have never yet read a writer who does not concede that Welles was genuinely talented and that some of his films are outstanding. But the counter-narrative points out that Welles was as much charlatan as genius, and that much of his bad luck was of his own making. True, having as his debut feature film a thinly-disguised portrait of William Randolph Hearst was always going to make him enemies. [See posting on The Chief, a biography of Hearst]. But when working in the Hollywood system, Welles wilfully antagonised people he didn’t need to antagonise. This included people who worked on his films. He was notoriously bad with budgets, fought with many of the actors under his direction and often squandered money he had been given on things other than his films. He always relied far more on collaborators than he ever let on. Many of his projects remained unfinished basically because his attention span was short and he couldn’t be bothered completing what he had begun. If he didn’t make it in Hollywood, it says as much about the good business sense of the studio bosses as it says about Welles’ inability to fit in. As for the notion of crass Hollywood failing to accommodate genius – what about those really great directors (Hitchcock, Ford, Lang etc.) who, despite frequent differences with studio bosses, nevertheless managed to make great films within the system? Welles spiked his own career. And as an actor he was an awful ham.
That is the battlefield of views about Welles – the genius beaten by the system or the guy who wrecked his own chances.
David Thomson’s Rosebud – The Story of Orson Welles is essentially the case for the prosecution. When I made notes about it in my reading diary, I summarised it thus: This book comes close to being a de-bunking of Welles’ life by one who is a rather disillusioned former admirer. Thomson clearly admires Welles’ best movies – Citizen Kane, Touch of Evil, Chimes at Midnight. Thomson’s basic theses are that Welles was a great theatrical improviser who worked best in the spirit of a magician or a conman putting one over an audience; but that unfortunately he was very undisciplined and easily bored. This meant that his improvisations entailed changing scripts unnecessarily, wilfully wasting budgets and generally alienating casts and driving friends away. He might have been at his best in the innovative stage productions he did as a very young man in the 1930s. Unfortunately they are now irrecoverable, so we have to rely on hearsay and old reviews to guess if they were any good, and there is the strong possibility that they would now be seen as overblown, ranty and pretentious. With regard to his Hollywood career, Thomson says, Welles generally engineered his own destruction, and was treated much better by studios and Hollywood professionals than Welles’ partisans have ever allowed. He was a better adaptor of other people’s scripts than an original writer of his own (thank you, Herman Mankiewicz). Despite some innovative techniques in his work, Welles’ outlook tended to be very conservative, involving an elegiac tone even before he’d reached 40. Citizen Kane says goodbye to a style of journalism that was already dying when the film was made. The Magnificent Ambersons farewells a social caste that had disappeared before the First World War. And thus it continues until Welles sounds his “chimes at midnight”. His attitude to women in his films is retrograde. They are mainly the passive playthings of male characters (victimised Dorothy Comingore in Citizen Kane; fetishized Rita Hayworth in The Lady from Shanghai; terrorised damsel-in-distress Janet Leigh in Touch of Evil). According to Thomson, most of Welles’ unfinished projects were unfinished because Welles preferred it that way. There is a great autobiographical element in all Welles’ work, good and bad. Thomson makes it clear that though, when young, he had his male admirers, Welles was not homosexual. He was a voracious, and easily bored, womaniser when young; and when old, a lousy father to the three children he’d had by three separate wives. But most of his films centre on the “betrayal” of one man by another, and his youthful relationship with collaborator John Houseman does have odd undertones. Welles’ own behaviour was that of an overgrown spoilt child who didn’t like other children getting the attention. Welles was often a fraud in the way he would claim much greater knowledge and experience than he ever really had. And – excluding the few really good ones – most of the films he produced outside the studio system were lamentably bad.
So much for the case for the prosecution.
As you might expect, Clinton Heylin’s Despite the System – Orson Welles versus the Hollywood Studios is very much (and very stridently) the case for the defence. Specifically answering Thomson and others who have been less than worshipful of Welles, Heylin advances the theory that Welles was a genius who bore the creative burden of living up to his own genius. Going carefully through studio memos, drafts of scripts, and letters and quarrels with studio personnel, Heylin does show the extent to which Welles really was messed about by Hollywood and how much some people really did have it in for him. In Heylin’s eyes, Welles’ years in Europe really were creative, and his unfinished projects were unfinished, not because he lacked creative energy but because, in most cases, he was not able to sustain the interest of backers.
I should add, by the way, that I havepart of a third biography of Welles on my shelves. For over 20 years now, the English actor and biographer Simon Callow has been producing a multi-volume life of Welles covering absolutely everything. The three volumes published so far are The Road to Xanadu (1995), Hello Americans (2006) and One Man Band (2015). The series still isn’t finished as Callow is currently working on the fourth and final volume. Only one volume sits on my shelves – Hello Americans, the volume dealing with Welles’ five years in Hollywood after Citizen Kane appeared. As far as I can determine from this one volume, Callow is a far greater admirer of Welles than Thomson is, but he is no hagiographer and he takes in the conman and charlatan aspects of Welles. Heylin would probably be upset by this.
So where do I stand on these diverse opinions of the director and actor? I appreciate how careful Heylin is in the defence of Welles and his diligence in hunting out evidence of Welles’ victimization. He is also right to call out Thomson and others on errors of fact they have committed. Even so, I tend now more to Thomson’s view. The best part of forty years ago, I remember writing a lengthy appreciation of Citizen Kane, ahead of a television screening of the film, for the old (defunct) Auckland Star. I mooted the idea that it was the greatest film ever made. Later I used the film in media studies classes. I once showed Welles’ “voodoo” version of Macbeth to a class studying Shakespeare’s tragedy (they weren’t impressed). I like Touch of Evil, with Welles’ character amply illustrating the Marlene Dietrich character’s comment “Honey, you’re a mess!” And – as far as I can remember it from a viewing long ago – Chimes at Midnight, Welles’ Falstaff film, is pretty good. There are also some arresting performances by Welles in films directed by other people – Mr Rochester in the 1944 version of Jane Eyre, but especially Harry Lime in Carol Reed’s and Graham Greene’s The Third Man. It may be the image of Welles in this film that sticks most in the greater public’s mind.
The rest of Welles’ film career, however, is a train wreck. His version of Kafka’s The Trial is okay at best. It may be the fault of the studio that took it out of his hands, but The Magnificent Ambersons is magnificent only in fragments. A film like The Stranger is as undistinguished as any comparable thriller – neither particularly good nor particularly bad. But if I wished to really punish somebody, I would make him or her sit through Welles-directed rubbish like Mr Arkadin, The Immortal Story and the slapdash documentary F for Fake. And for sheer ham, it would be hard to beat the overblown performances Welles gave in most of the films that weren’t his.
I simply do not believe that this was a genius bubbling with ideas. I believe this was a very talented man who went to pieces outside the studio system that could have supported and sustained him by giving him some of the discipline that he badly lacked. A pity, of course but, unless we are interested only in gossip, do we not judge artists by the art they actually produce, as opposed to what their admirers think they could have produced?