Deflating the legend of a movie genius

Review Biography

September 03, 2006|By Richard Schickel | Richard Schickel,Los Angeles Times

Orson Welles: Hello Americans (Volume 2)

Simon Callow

Whatever Happened to Orson Welles?

A Portrait of an Independent Career

Joseph McBride

University of Kentucky Press / 384 pages / $29.95

If, as the saying goes, genius is defined by an infinite capacity for taking pains, then Orson Welles was no genius. If, as another saying goes, God is in the details, then there was nothing godlike about him, either - despite the worshipful posturings of his many acolytes.

How, people go on wondering, could the man who created Citizen Kane, arguably the greatest of all American films, fritter away the rest of his life - nearly half a century - on movies spoiled by his own inattention or by the machinations of others or, worse, simply abandoned with many of their most significant elements lost? The story of Orson Welles has become central to a core myth, beloved by passionate cinephiles and the ever-contemptuous literati, that Hollywood wantonly, inevitably destroys its most gifted creators.

I think that notion is nonsensical. You cannot read the second volume of Simon Callow's projected three-part biography, Orson Welles: Hello Americans, or Joseph McBride's more personal and passionate Whatever Happened to Orson Welles? (to be published in October) without coming to believe that Welles was the primary auteur of his own misery. Neither writer addresses that point directly, but each lays out the evidence plainly. The problem with both is that neither quite links the flaws in Welles' nature with the failure of his films.

The simple truth is that Welles, who was orphaned as a child, was raised by a foster father, Maurice ("Dadda") Bernstein, and nurtured by a schoolteacher, Roger Hill, to believe in his own genius - no questions asked, no limits set. McBride quotes Welles, late in life, commenting on a character in the screenplay The Brass Ring (published but, of course, unmade), thus: "He is a man who has within himself the devil of self-destruction that lives in every genius. ... It is not self-doubt, it is cosmic doubt! What am I going to do - I am the best, I know that, now what do I do with it?"

In Welles' case, the answer comes back: After 1942, he did almost nothing of unambiguous value. Callow tells the story of the years between the premiere of Citizen Kane in May 1941 and Welles' self-exile in Europe, beginning in 1947, in sometimes exhausting detail - a mere six years out of a 70-year life. But he obviously believes - and makes us believe - that they were crucial in determining the unholy mess that followed.

It is true that Kane was not a commercial or unalloyed critical success in its initial release. But it raised a most gratifying hullabaloo, and even the skeptical could see that it was a picture to be reckoned with, and, possibly, a harbinger. Nothing in the "controversy" surrounding the film (people did not yet see that it was less a fictional biography of William Randolph Hearst than a fictional autobiography of George Orson Welles) precluded a great career for its director, co-writer and star. And we know now - even from the severely truncated form in which it exists (about one-third of it was cut by the studio, RKO) - that Welles' next movie, The Magnificent Ambersons, was quite likely a masterpiece too.

But he did not see it through. Welles was seduced away from postproduction on Ambersons by the U.S. government: He was asked to make a film in Brazil in support of our wartime Good Neighbor Policy. He thought it was his patriotic duty to do it (and perhaps also he wanted to avoid the draft), and he was confident that other hands could shepherd Ambersons through postproduction. Besides, he had a work print of the film with him, and phone and cable lines were up and running. He would supervise it by remote control, while improvising It's All True, a scriptless, multi-part semi-documentary on South American life.

In the end, he neither successfully defended Ambersons nor finished It's All True. The former's first preview (in Pomona) was disastrous; George Schaefer (the head of the studio and Welles' chief supporter) was engaged in a desperate battle to save his own job; and, frankly, Welles was largely drunk and disorderly in Rio, paying at most intermittent attention to his film's fate. So RKO subjected his film to the death of a thousand cuts - the most serious of which was to the final sequence, a long, mournful elegy for lost American innocence destroyed by rampant industrialism: It was not a message that people wanted to hear as our productive might was mobilized to prosecute World War II.

Eventually, the studio dumped the film. Eventually, Welles would admit that this was the mistake from which his career never recovered. McBride reports him weeping as he watched Ambersons on television years later.

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