Callow's Orson Welles: Ridicule misplaced

February 11, 1996|By JOAN MELLEN | JOAN MELLEN,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu," by Simon Callow. Viking. 640 pages. $32.95

Even if he comes to dislike his subject, the biographer is DTC obliged to grant him his due. In the most mean-spirited and cynical biography in memory, British actor and director Simon Callow has chosen as his mission to attack, denigrate and ridicule Orson Welles.

Mr. Callow wants to prove that Welles was overrated, a vain, self-serving liar. Mr. Callow insists Welles was a "great fulfiller" rather than an innovator and repeatedly stole credit from others. He makes him fat, profligate and cruel. The director of "Citizen Kane," the most studied work by American film students, is not a major figure in film history but its consummate fraud, this biography concludes.

Mr. Callow pompously declares he will put Welles in "context," the better to "synthesize" and "deconstruct" his legend. What results is a bloated text, inflated with undigested gobs of quotations from critics. By invariably following the good reviews with the bad, Mr. Callow attempts to undercut anyone who ever praised Orson Welles.

Mr. Callow's ridicule begins even with the name of Welles' birthplace, Kenosha, Wis.! The word "Kenosha" means "pike," the fish! How could anyone of talent and accomplishment come from there, snobbish Mr. Callow implies. So much for the biographer who would put his subject in "context."

Mr. Callow, who has also written on Charles Laughton, resorts often to the mannerisms of the biographer whose research is thin: "perhaps," "it feels as if," "it would be all too understandable." Biographers who have offered a more balanced view of Orson Welles are attacked, most notably Barbara Leaming who is called "Welles's mother confessor" on sexual matters. Having done little original research himself, Mr. Callow proceeds to lean on hers.

Knowing little about America and less of cinema, Mr. Callow introduces us to a "baseball forward." Come again? John Brown was a "unilateral anti-slaver," whatever that means. Lacking any story telling gift, Mr. Callow even resorts to addressing his subject: "Enough already with the make-up, Orson! one is tempted to cry," Mr. Callow writes. Mr. Callow is so mean-spirited that he even compares Welles' extraordinary voice to that of "Steiner's Hitler." The psychology is sophomoric: "Welles was constantly trying to give himself weight, solidity ... always feeling small, despite girth and glory." Mr. Callow's answer is to whittle Orson Welles down to pygmy proportions.

Callow treats "Citizen Kane" not as the triumph of Welles' young life (he was 25) but as one more example of Welles taking credit for the work of others. Obviously at sea in discussing film, Mr. Callow talks opaquely of "montage form." The famous breakfast scene between Kane and Emily was "stolen," no matter that Eisenstein learned from Griffith, all artists learn from each other.

Pronouncing Welles finished at 26, Mr. Callow mercifully departs to work on his second volume, which he announces will be devoted to the question: "Why did he get so fat?" Biographers: the subject of Orson Welles remains available for a fresh approach. Readers: Put away your wallets. You'll find scant credibility here.

Joan Mellen is author of 12 books, seven about film: "A Film Guide to the Battle of Algiers," "Marilyn Monroe," "Women and their Sexuality in the New Film," "Voices from the Japanese Cinema," "The Waves at Genji's Door," "Big Bad Wolves" and "The World of Luis Bunuel." Her "Hellman and Hammett" will be published in May by HarperCollins.

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