Orson Welles Volume Three: One Man Band by Simon Callow, Viking, 466 pages, $40. Simon Callow is so rare as to be almost unique. In an impossibly busy life, he is chiefly an actor and a very good one. Unfortunately, most of his film and TV appearances haven’t made it over to our side of the pond. What has had an increasingly large presence, though, has been his acclaimed work as a writer – in particular his continuing biography of Orson Welles.
The literature of Orson Welles is, by now, almost as large as the man himself used to be. In the large Wellesian library, he is usually under consideration by film intellectuals – France’s Andre Bazin, say, or Pauline Kael, who coldly vandalized Welles’ monument “Citizen Kane” and Peter Biskind, in his editing of Welles’ wonderful mealtime conversations with Henry Jaglom. What makes Callow so special in the bursting Wellesian canon is the point of view of a British working repertory actor – a fellow who, according to fable, first came to the theater to work in Olivier’s box office.
Callow is now up to Volume Three of his extraordinary Welles biography, which means that, in the Welles chronology, his genius has already exploded in “Citizen Kane,” and its shards have been snatched by Hollywood business Brahmins to put together however they jolly well chose in “The Magnificent Andersons.”
Callow, bless him, will have none of that idea. Welles, ever afterward, was a symbol of self-indulgence and chaotic decline, which is why Callow is so valuable about this period of Welles’ life, from 1947 to 1964. It was during this period that Welles made “Touch of Evil,” sometimes playfully hyperbolized as the greatest B movie of all time, and the Falstaff film that is often considered Welles’ masterpiece (especially by actors), “Chimes at Midnight.”
It is both Callow’s chutzpah and cunning to imagine Welles from the inside. Take this about Welles’ misbehavior after appearing in Richard Fleischer’s “Compulsion”: “He behaves badly; he apologizes. It is a recurring pattern, though he rarely apologizes to anyone without power. Mostly, what it is is a matter of status. He is being humiliated, diminished, disrespected in some way.” Callow GETS Orson Welles. – Jeff Simon