A Warlord of Art; Why the grandeur of Orson Welles could not exist without his many difficulties
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 31 May 2016)

Money was not only the root of all evil for Orson Welles, it was also the root of all energy. It was what drove him all his life to work hard raising the money that would allow him to direct the movies he dreamt of making. Money was the reason he exiled himself from America for decades and sought acting jobs, most of them beneath him, in Europe. American film companies had lost patience with him but he rightly believed that he could flourish in Europe.

One-Man Band, the third volume of Simon Callow's richly detailed biography, begins in 1947 when Welles accepts $100,000 to act in a movie called Black Magic because the IRS was hounding him over unpaid taxes. Soon he's in Italy to play Cesare Medici in Prince of Foxes (starring Tyrone Power) while getting ready to make his own film of Othello, starring himself.

Next he was dealing with the most successful movie he was ever involved in -- not Citizen Kane but The Third Man, the Carol Reed-directed thriller about corruption in postwar Vienna. It was so popular even the theme music became a hit as played on the zither by the composer, Anton Karas. In Graham Greene's script the Welles character is Harry Lime, who runs a black market in fake penicillin.

Welles worked for two weeks, receiving $100,000 for 11 minutes of screen time. He could have made more by accepting a piece of the film as his fee but at the time he was too desperate to wait for the money.

One-Man Band becomes, for long stretches, a story about desperation. At every turn Welles is searching for money. He spends months begging for investment but it runs out before the work is done. He orders expensive costumes for Othello but is forced to improvise because they can't be delivered till the bill is paid. He orders cheap film stock from a dozen different places and then discovers that they don't all work together.

His life turns the phrase "independent filmmaker" into a joke. Welles is always dependent on something -- on the charity of suppliers, on the patience of hotelkeepers and above all on the willingness of actors to work for money that will be paid late or never. At one point Callow tells us several actors, old friends of Welles, were facing personal bankruptcy because he couldn't pay them. Everyone hoped that Othello would work despite all the obstacles, that Welles would pull off a miracle, but they hoped in vain. After three years of intermittent shooting it felt like a preliminary draft of a film, from the incompetent soundtrack to the unimpressive Desdemona, the young Canadian actress Suzanne Cloutier.

His other Shakespearean film, Chimes at Midnight (1965) was much more successful. Callow tells us, "His Falstaff is a self-portrait, both justification and apologia."

The Wellesian reputation and charm carried him through difficulties, largely of his own making, that would make anyone else a pariah in the profession. According to Callow, "One senses something archaic about him. He behaves like some great tribal chieftain, a warlord of art, riding roughshod over the niceties of conventional behaviour."

Callow says that he "behaved more or less badly on virtually every film he did not direct." His ego was as big as the rest of him. The excuse, according to Callow, was humiliation. He felt it was beneath him to appear in other men's work, especially when (as was usually the case, in his view) the other men were inferior. He tried to take over everyone else's films. As an actor he was every director's nightmare, every producer's regret, every photography director's unwanted adviser.

Welles had to assert his status. Someone criticized him for taking a lofty tone while berating a minor functionary on a film, accusing him of acting like royalty. "I am royalty," Welles said. He treated schedules with disdain, even on his own films. On one of them he routinely showed up for work at 1 p.m. and didn't get started until early evening, keeping everyone in the company waiting till midnight or later.

Simon Callow, a stage director and a witty, inventive actor, has made the biography of Welles a decadeslong project. His writing is so densely and convincingly detailed that he leaves the impression that he could tell you what Welles did on every day of his life. Callow originally intended to write a three-volume book but in his preface he blandly informs us he's going for a fourth -- because, it seems, Welles was so prolific that his story couldn't be crammed into a mere three volumes (the newest one runs 466 pages). Vol. IV will take Welles from his return to America in 1964 to his death at age 70 in 1985.

Reading Callow's book is an immersion in the life of Welles. The book becomes the reader's environment rather than an enjoyable pastime. On every page we find an outrageous incident or a sparkling insight. When, exhausted, we turn back to the preface, we discover that after all these years of labour Callow is still impressed by the grandeur of Welles, and still agrees with the most important decision of his life. As he says, if Welles had modified his behaviour so that he could have worked with a studio and a producer, he could have made many more pictures. "But he would not then have been the force of nature that he was. He would have been just another filmmaker."

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