Authors: Simon Callow
Simon Callow is an actor, director and writer. He has appeared on the stage and in many films, including the hugely popular
Four Weddings and a Funeral
. Callow’s books include
Being an Actor
Shooting the Actor
and a highly acclaimed biography of Charles Laughton.
If you try to probe, I’ll lie to you. Seventy-five percent of what I say in interviews is false. I’m like a hen protecting her eggs. I cannot talk. I must protect my work. Introspection is bad for me. I’m a medium, not an orator. Like certain oriental and Christian mystics, I think the ‘self’ is a kind of enemy. My work is what enables me to
come out of myself. I like what I do, not what I am … Do you know the best service anyone could render to art? Destroy all biographies. Only art can explain the life of a man – and not the contrary.
: What’s all that, for God’s sake? You look like a one-man filing cabinet.
: Throw it all away, Peter – it can only cripple the fine
spirit of invention.
I don’t want
description of me to be accurate; I want it to be flattering. I don’t think people who have to sing for their supper ever like to be described truthfully – not in print anyway. We need to sell tickets, so we need good reviews.
How do you reconcile that with –
: For thirty years people have
been asking me how I reconcile X with Y! The truthful answer is that I don’t. Everything about me is a contradiction, and so is everything about everybody else. We are made out of oppositions; we live between two poles. There’s a philistine and an aesthete in all of us, and a murderer and a saint. You don’t reconcile the poles. You just recognise them.
A question mark hovers over practically every aspect of Welles’s
life and work. This is the more surprising since he is among the most fully documented artists of the twentieth century. The source of confusion is, almost without exception, Welles himself (an alternative title for the present volume might be, to adapt the title of the first full-length biography,
The Fabulist Orson Welles
); but he has been eagerly abetted in the construction of his personal myth by legions of interviewers, profile-writers and biographers, all, like him, unable to resist a good story. The result is that he now appears awesome but inexplicable, like an abandoned but world-famous monument in the middle of the jungle – the scale of it! the confidence of the people who built this! why was it abandoned?
why was the right wing never completed? Welles himself, in his later interviews with Leslie Megahey for the BBC and Peter Bogdanovich for the book
This is Orson Welles
, assumed a charming tone of mellow bemusement at the events of his life, as if they were mysteriously beyond analysis, a sort of cosmic aberration.
The curious thing is that the real story, though sometimes less sensational,
is so often more remarkable than the extrapolations. I have, I believe, been able to uncover quite a large number of missing details in Welles’s life. My task in writing this study, however, has been as much to re-evaluate the known facts as to establish new ones. A great deal of the groundwork has been done by previous biographers, each with his or her own special area: Charles Higham, whose reconstruction
of Welles’s family tree is a virtuoso feat of research; Barbara Leaming, who got Welles’s final version of his life from the horse’s mouth; and Frank Brady, who spoke to many of Welles’s associates now dead. Their work has been exhaustive; somehow the facts thus established fail to add up to a life-like image of the man – or of any man.
This is partly because they have focused exclusively
on Welles himself. As an antidote to this, I have tried to put him back into the context from which he wrenched himself. There are a number of individual studies of specific areas of Welles’s life (Robert Carringer’s
The Making of Citizen Kane
is an excellent example) which have identified important collaborators hitherto hidden from history. This identification of the supporting cast has been
my guiding principle at all times. Cleaning the canvas, as it were, I have aimed to reveal the surrounding figures and Welles’s connection with them. Welles often declared himself opposed to the use of close-ups in cinematography; it was, he said, both undemocratic and unaesthetic to exclude the rest of the world to the advantage of a single figure in it. His biographers have been uninhibited by
any such considerations, and
have thus, whether they like Welles or not, sustained the myth he created of himself. The most important element of this myth was his originality. Welles was undoubtedly a most unusual individual, but he did not drop from Mars. His psychology, though complex, conformed to recognisable patterns; his career, while exceptional, was formed by the circumstances of his times
and the conditions of his profession. I have tried at every turn to find out what else was going on while the famous events of his life were unfolding, what other people in the same sphere were up to, and what they thought of him – to restore, in short, a little of the texture of real life to the curious tissue of miraculous tales and genre scenes which pass for biography in Welles studies.
Many of the most often repeated incidents seem to be borrowed from children’s Lives of Christ (a figure, incidentally, who held a life-long fascination for Welles). A version of Christ Among the Doctors can be found in the opening chapter of pretty well any Welles biography you care to open; as can the image of the master who sprang fully formed from his mother’s womb, an essential element in any
artist’s biography, according to Kris and Kurz in
Legend, Myth and Magic in the Image of the Artist
, a book filled with resonance for the Welles scholar.
This approach is not designed to deny the charm or the creativity of the legends, simply to examine their origins and contrast and compare them with what actually happened, in an attempt to determine what Welles was like in the world, what
impact he made on his associates and his times, and how – day by day – he went about the jobs of directing, writing and acting. Hitherto, the only credible representations of him have been those offered by John Houseman in
and Micheál Mac Liammóir in
All about Hecuba
Put Money in thy Purse
. Both men engaged deeply with Welles and were beguiled and frustrated by him in equal measure.
Their distinctly different views of him, though highly personal, are based on close observation and intense engagement, and written with precision and insight; both men were denounced by Welles, their witness called into question. I was lucky enough to know them personally and what they told me about Welles has been the starting point for my book, which is thus simultaneously a synthesis and
It has been a question of asking, not simply is this true or false? (although sometimes that has been useful) but what does this mean? Even the recent past is another country, and the milieus in which Welles moved, social, theatrical, and political, should not be taken for granted. They did things differently there. I have looked at the
often astonishing events of his life
and tried to renew the surprise contained in them – the actual events rather than the ones he imagined. (Of course the reasons why he felt impelled to reinvent his life, and the specific details he chose to invent, are always revealing.) The hardest-bitten and least friendly of Welles’s biographers have been mysteriously inclined to swallow his most improbable confections, and have failed to ask
the most elementary questions. Somehow, like Hitler’s captors in George Steiner’s
The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H
., they have been bewitched by their subject’s silver tongue. One of the features of myth – one of its purposes, perhaps – is to discourage speculation: to create a framework in which everything is so extraordinary that nothing is questioned. Disbelief is automatically suspended.