Orson Welles: One-Man Band

By Simon Callow

Viking. 496 pp. $40

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Reviewed by Michael Magras


He was an actor and director of such intensity that some of the leading ladies he kissed during performances - Eartha Kitt in the play

Time Runs

, Margaret Lockwood in the film

Trent's Last Case

- ended up with bruised lips. He was known to eat at one sitting "a meal consisting of five copious courses, two bottles of red wine and many glasses of fifty-year-old cognac." And he thought so much of himself that when an agent who could resuscitate his flagging career said upon meeting him, "May I call you Orson?" he replied, "Mr. Welles will do."

Eight days before his death in 1985, Orson Welles told an interviewer, "I would rather be remembered as a good guy than as a difficult genius."

But as the actor and director Simon Callow reminds us in One-Man Band, the third volume of his immensely entertaining biography, the Welles we remember today was "mendacious, self-vaunting, crafty, slothful . . . but like [Falstaff] the fat knight, he is also deeply, irrepressibly on the side of life, a force of nature, ablaze with energy."

That energy explains why some of the greatest actors of his day were willing to work with him, from Charlton Heston in Touch of Evil to John Gielgud in Chimes at Midnight, the 1966 movie thought by many to be Welles' finest cinematic achievement.

The first two volumes of this series covered Welles' upbringing and early career, from Citizen Kane to the films that RKO Studios took away from him and recut. This new book covers 1947 to 1966, a period in which Welles, dodging the studio system and IRS demands for back taxes, traveled back and forth between Europe and the United States, always hunting for money, fighting with studio heads and producers, and enduring criticism such as theater critic Walter Kerr's claim that the former boy wonder had become "the youngest living has-been."

The legend of Welles is that he abandoned many projects because of his lack of discipline. Callow shows that Welles was more prolific than most people realize. His output during this period was "a continuous volcanic eruption of films, plays, radio programmes, journalism, painting and political interventions," albeit with spotty results.

He directed five films, from Mr. Arkadin, about an American smuggler in cold war Europe, to an experimental version of Kafka's The Trial. But he did much more: stage productions like Ionesco's Rhinoceros and an adaptation of Moby-Dick; television work, including the celebrated if inaccurately named travelogue Around the World with Orson Welles (every episode is set in Europe); and his performance in The Third Man. He even directed a ballet.

Much of the joy in reading this book is the humor with which Callow infuses the narrative. It's hard to imagine a more engaging tour guide. After playwright Jean Cocteau praised Welles' stage work in France, other critics tried to outdo Cocteau's effusiveness. Callow writes, "At least Cocteau had the excuse of being an opium addict; what were these chaps on?"

He's also an insightful critic. Of Welles' The Unthinking Lobster, Callow writes that the play "attempts a peculiarly French form, the light comedy of ideas, but the form demands, paradoxically enough, a certain rigour, which is here absent." And he doesn't hesitate to point out Welles' limitations as an actor, including this assessment of his broad performance in the film David and Goliath: "It is unquestionably ham, but it is very thinly sliced."

One-Man Band says little about Welles' personal life, which, in the years covered here, included marriage to his third wife and the birth of a daughter. But one can't fault Callow for keeping the spotlight on the work of a man who was all about his work.

Mr. Arkadin includes the famous story, attributed to Aesop, of the scorpion and the frog, in which a scorpion stings and kills the frog carrying him across a pond and justifies his suicidal action with "It's in my character." As this biography makes clear, Orson Welles was a glutton in more ways than one. He probably should have feasted less and thrown fewer tantrums, but you can't say the actors and producers who accompanied him on his journeys didn't know whom they were ferrying.

Michael Magras is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. His work has appeared in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, Houston Chronicle, Chicago Tribune, and the Iowa Review.